What I loved this winter

Where I’ve been

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.

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Christmas brought clear crisp weather to the Aberdeenshire coast; ideal for long walks and star-filled nights.

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.

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Lazy winter days spent beachcombing, reading good books, and spending time with family.
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Love my favourite beach at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve.
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Celebrating Hogmanay on the beach with a midnight bonfire.

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.

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RSS Discovery alongside her new neighbour on the Dundee riverside, the V&A

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.

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The occasional sunrise run was brilliant for starting my day the best way.

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.

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RED laces help you run better: FACT!

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 are 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.

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After an awesomeinduction and domestic ops. training course, I’m now a qualified TRUK Greyshirt.

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.

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Watching the change of the seasons in the woodland.

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.

 

My winter love list

  • Books: Winter is always the best time to get lost in a good book.  Dark evenings and wild weather teamed with a cosy spot to sit and a wee dram.  Over the last few months I’ve read Erebus by Michael Palin, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Phillip Hoare, and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.
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Getting stuck into a good book is one of the great pleasures of a Christmas holiday.  Along with a good slug of amaretto in your coffee.
  • 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.  Its 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 it’s paces.
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The Robens Starlight 1 one person tent.
  • 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).

 

What’s next:

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.

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Planning and researching a route for the TGO Challenge has been an enjoyable diversion over the winter months.

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.

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Cheers to the New Year and the new advdentures it will bring!

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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In Search of Martians on Horsell Common, Surrey

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.

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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.

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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.

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The Woking Martian by Warofdreams on CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=940898

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.

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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.

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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.

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10 Things to Get Through Winter

At this time of year, with the winter solstice just past, and New Year not too far ahead, I usually find myself in a reflective mood, thinking about all the things that have happened through the year, and what might be to come in the year ahead.

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Getting outside in winter has huge benefits for physical and mental health, but can be a real challenge.

I find this time of year quite challenging; living with depression sometimes I’m so lacking in energy and motivation through these months that just getting out of bed feels like swimming through treacle. I’m no fan of the resolutions that January brings, usually involving the denial of alcohol, caffeine and sugar; things that make the dark winter months that bit more enjoyable.

In my opinion, such extreme measures and deprivation are unlikely to do any favours in the long term. I think a more workable way to make lifestyle changes, and to manage the challenges of winter, is to introduce small, enjoyable, things that upgrade my everyday, and contribute to success without excluding anything.

So this a list of 10 small things I’m aiming to do through winter, to keep my body and mind fresh and focused, and work towards a healthy, happy, year ahead.

  • Drink more water (but ditch single-use plastic bottles). Hydration is important, but the health of the planet is even more vital. Investing in a reusable water bottle saved me money in the long run, and cut my plastic footprint from the start. It takes a bit more organisation, but so many places now give refills that it’s easy on the go. I have a Kleen Kanteen insulated bottle that keeps water chilled for hours, or lets me take a warm drink out for a winter hike.
  • Pick an audiobook or podcast. I love listening to the radio as I do things; driving, cooking, writing, and so on. But rather than listening passively to whatever plays, I’ve decided to be more pro-active in my choices. Plus, having tales of travel and adventure read aloud to me in the bath is the height of luxury. Try some of my favourites and see if you agree.
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A flask of hot blueberry drink and the best snacks for a long winter walk
  • Set aside a weekly life admin hour. Rather than letting stuff build up, which can pile on anxiety, designating a regular session for sorting paperwork, paying bills, and all the other dull stuff helps me manage stresses. I write down ideas and reminders through the week on a running to do list to make sure that I don’t miss anything important. It’s part of my strategy to turn down the volume on noise.
  • Get outside every day. Getting out in the fresh air and sunlight is vital for my mental health, especially in winter, event though the weather isn’t always as welcoming as I’d hope for. Good wind and waterproof outdoor gear makes it so much easier, so it’s worth spending on quality items that make the difference between getting out and about or moping under a duvet. These are my cold weather essentials for heading out.
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    Quick cook dinners for winter evenings, or a warm lunch outdoors on a cold
  • Learn three 15 minute recipes. Arriving home from work in the dark, after a long day, I know that I need to eat a meal within half an hour or I’ll be scoffing snacks all evening. It’s too easy to throw a plastic pot of something into the microwave, so my aim is to master three quick recipes and try to always have the ingredients at hand. My current favourites are gnocchi with pancetta, mushrooms and parmesan, spicy pepper and halloumi wraps, and a soy chili chicken rice bowl topped with a fried egg.
  • Plan regular digital admin dates. I rely on my laptop, phone and camera for work, blogging, and other projects, and it’s too easy to have hundreds of notes, photos and documents filling up the memory on my devices. So I’ve started a monthly habit to download, delete, file and back-up my files. It does sound incredibly tedious, but it’s also the chance to chill on the sofa for a few hours, listen to music or a podcast, perhaps with a glass or two of something.
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I set aside a regular hour or two on a Sunday morning or a weekday evening to organise various to do lists, download and back up files.
  • Master a mini-workout with three exercises to do anywhere. My fitness routine, well, just isn’t routine. With travelling, sailing, and unpredictable work hours, I can find it hard to fit in the gym or swim sessions and fitness classes that I know help my physical and mental health. So with three simple exercises I can do anywhere (squats, lunges and tricep dips), I have a basic workout to build on wherever I am.
  • Schedule some diary dates with friends. It can be too easy to put off catching-up with a coffee or glass of wine when the weather and darkness make heading home to hibernate such a nice idea. By making a loose arrangement to meet friends weekly at parkrun or yoga class, or for a monthly pub quiz or craft session draws us together without the extra effort of planning an event and rounding up the troops.
  • Take on a course to learn new skills, expand my knowledge, or revive an old passion. Over the past few years I’ve done an introduction to yoga, a printmaking class, and taken an adult improvers swimming course. I’ve also used online study to improve my Norwegian language skills and to spark an interest in maritime archaeology, using the Future Learn platform. In winter is seems to be a bit easier to allocate an evening a week to a new activity, which has the benefit of extending my social circle (virtually and in real life), and keeping my brain active.
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The TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland on foot, will be my biggest adventure in the spring of 2019.
  • Map travels for the New Year. Recently my travels have been quite spontaneous, taking advantage of the opportunities that cropped up through the year. But with a switch to a full-time freelance status I need to do some serious planning to balance income generating activity with income depleting activity. Plus, I love the process of planning out travels and fixing some dates and destinations for the year ahead.
Do you have any tips for making winter work for you?
How do you intend to relax and recharge yourself for the New Year?
Leave a message in the comments below to let me know.

My Cold Weather Essentials

first_foot_at_compton_smallAs 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’s 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.

A buff

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.

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Warming up from the inside with a Thermos food flask

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. 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 the camera all the time, and wouldn’t want to miss a beautiful sunset sky.

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A winter midlayer from Houdini Sportswear

Insulated Jacket

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 drops, and tucks away in its own pocket to stuff in my bag while I don’t need it.

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Keeping warm with a Buff, Finisterre wrist warmers and Rab knit gloves

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 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.

Softshell trousers

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.

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What kit can’t you do without when the weather starts to turn wintry?
Share your tips in the comments below.

What I loved this autumn

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Making repairs to the mainsail on Blue Clipper  while alongside in Molde, Norway

Where I’ve been:

I’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.

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Preparing to leave Ålesund, Norway, as dusk falls

Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund.  I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavn for a week longer than expected.

The voyage was amazing for wildlife encounters; migrating barnacle geese, eider ducks and other birds heading southwards, enormous sea eagles on every island, sharks cruising by on the surface, basking seals, pods of porpoises, dolphins, pilot whales.  Sparking bioluminescence mirroring the night’s stars.  And as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, a day or so north of Camariñas, two magnificent fin whales broke the surface on our starboard side.

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Fin whale blowing and surfacing in the Bay of Biscay. Picture courtesy of Mario Branco.

I’ve never really been one for sunshine holidays, so the Algarve has never really been on my travel radar until now.  I was really pleased to find that away from resorts (and in the shoulder season) there’s some really beautiful and wild parts of the coast, near Alvor and Sagres, estuaries and saltmarshes filled with birdlife, and even storks roosting on every tower in town.  And Portuguese food is pretty good too.

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Leaving the resorts behind to discover the wilder side of the Algarve coast
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There’s much more to the Algarve than golf courses and beach bars

Back in the UK I’ve been fortunate to get a couple of short trips in the time I’ve been back, with a couple of days in the Peak District near Leek, and a few more in Church Stretton to hike in the Shropshire Hills, brush up on my navigation skills, and appreciate the stunning autumn colours.

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Autumn in the English countryside

What I’ve done:

Since returning to Bedfordshire, I’ve joined the weekly parkrun at my nearby country park.  It’s been so long since I’ve been running, and I’m still getting over a knee injury, so I’m starting from the beginning again, but I really enjoy the sociability of the runs.

I’ve been developing an idea for a podcast, which I hope to launch next month.  So when I get a moment, it’s filled up with working: reading, researching, and writing.  Watch this space for more news.

I’ve also pulled out all my hiking gear, waterproof clothing, and sailing oilskins to give them all a proper deep clean, and coating with Nikwax waterproofing treatment ready for winter.  I hope the effort will pay off and keep me dry and warm through the months ahead.

My autumn love list:

Book: I’ve been remotely discovering the Scottish islands over the last couple of months, with several of the books I’ve read.  But When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John MacLeod has been the one that’s lingered longest in my mind.  An account of the tragic loss of the ship returning demobbed WWI soldiers and seamen home to the islands for Hogmanay, and the long shadow cast by the worst peacetime maritime loss in British waters.

Podcast: Dan Snow’s History Hit, which does exactly what is says on the tin.  Each is a short but deep dive into a specific event or idea from history.  With the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI in November, my recent interest has been mainly in the episodes covering that period.  Which brings me on to…

Film: They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary film by Peter Jackson that tells the story of WWI from the British point of view, using old film archives and recorded interviews.  The moment that the images on screen transition from black and white to colourised 3D footage is simply spine-tingling.

Clothing: Since returning from the Algarve to Bedfordshire, I’ve embraced the chill to get out and make the most of my favourite season.  That means warm woollen sweaters, including my favourite knit from Finnisterre, cosy socks, and a new pair of gloves from Rab.  I’ve also been able to dig out my flannel pyjamas for enjoying toasty evenings in.

Equipment: With the clock change last month and nights drawing in, I’ve found myself out in the dark often, and my Petzl Tikka+ headtorch has become one of the things I use most.  As a lightweight lamp, with a red light, it’s great for moving around a ship at night or going on evening runs, however I think I might look into upgrading to something more powerful for hiking in the dark, like one from LED Lenser.

I’ve also found my Thermos food flask, which is perfect for packing a warming lunch of soup, stew or pasta while I’m out and about.  It’s one of my cold weather essentials.

Treats: Autumn always means mince pies.  They’re usually available from around the time of my birthday in September, and I buy a selection from the different stores to work out which is my preferred mince pie for the season.  I’m still in the testing stage this year, as I’ve been scoffing pastéis de nata in Portugal until recently.

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Blogging in Blue Clipper’s saloon with good coffee and a few pastéis de nata

What’s next:

I’m planning on a much quieter few months over the winter, spending time back up in northeast Scotland visiting friends and family.  I’m hoping that there will be plenty of time to walk along the coast, and take a few trips into the mountains, around the projects I’ll be working on.

I’m also going to get stuck into the planning for my next big adventure, looking at maps, blog posts, and guides.  In May 2019, I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland from west to east.  Participants choose their own start and finish points, and plan their route between the two.  This will be my second attempt at the TGO, so I’ve some unfinished business to deal with, plus it’s the 40th Anniversary of the challenge.

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures (and vague rambling ideas) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

 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.

 

 

 

What to Pack for a Tall Ship Voyage

You’ve booked a once-in-a-lifetime voyage on a beautiful sailing ship, and started dreaming about life during the golden age of sail or even rounding the Horn in a force nine.  But as your date of departure cruises closer, what do you actually need to pack?

I’ve sailed on a few tall ships; short voyages around western Europe, island hopping in the Pacific, on long ocean crossing passages, and in the Tall Ships races, so from my experience, here are some recommendations to add to your packing list.

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Crossing the Arctic Circle under sail along the coast of Norway

How to pack

Space on a sailing ship is limited, so think carefully about what you bring, and how you bring it.  Forget stuffing things into a hard-shelled rolling suitcase, there’s usually nowhere to stow it onboard.  Instead, pack a collapsible holdall or duffle bag, which can be rolled up when not in use.  Waterproof bags aren’t usually necessary, but it might be worth investing in one if you sail on smaller vessels too.  I love my Helly Hansen 90L duffel bag.  It’s big enough for everything I need, plus things I pick up on the voyage, and being orange, I always find it on the luggage carousel at the airport.

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At 90L capacity this bag was big enough to pack everything I needed for six months of sailing voyages, hiking trips, and travelling without going home.

Packing cubes or small lightweight drybags help keep things organised inside your main bag.  I have a variety of sizes and colours; it’s not the most coordinated look, but I can easily grab what I need.

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Compression drybags aren’t usually essential on most larger vessels, but will help keep gear organised in small cabins and shared spaces.

What you might need

Each ship is different, and it’s important to keep in touch with the organisation after booking to get the best understanding of the set-up on board.  They should all be able to provide you with a kit list to help you prepare.

Some ships provide hammocks for sleeping while others have bunks; most will provide you with the bedding you’ll need, although some smaller boats may ask you to bring a sleeping bag.  Most training ships will also have sets of foul weather gear and waterproof boots for you to borrow for your time on board.

All the safety gear essential for your voyage will be provided by the ship.

My essentials

There’s several things that I always take on my sailing adventures, but things to keep me warm, dry, and comfortable are the first to go in my bag.

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Keeping warm and dry should be your priority for clothing; most sailing organisations will have some foul weather gear you can borrow for your voyage.
  • Foul weather gear.  I have a Helly Hansen sailing  jacket and salopettes.  Fisherman-style oilskins are great for keeping you dry, but lack the insulation of sailing gear, so you’ll need additional warm layers underneath.
  • Waterproof boots.  Dry, warm feet make life better, without question.  Most ships also insist on closed-toe shoes on deck, and sturdy soles are better for climbing in the rigging, so I usually pack a pair of trail shoes too.
  • Windproof jacket.  It’s always a bit cooler at sea, and a lightweight windproof jacket will make watches more comfortable when there’s not quite the need for full foul weather gear.
  • Hat, scarf, and gloves. Night watches get chilly, especially when you’re not moving around much.  A hat and scarf or buff keep out the cold, and are easy to take off again when the sun comes up.  I don’t like wearing sailing gloves to handle ropes, but warm gloves make steering more comfortable when its windy.
  • Sunglasses and sunblock.  Sunlight still passes through cloud cover, and it gets reflected back off the water, so you get a much higher exposure than usual.  I use factor 30 sunblock minimum, more usually factor 50 (I’m very pale and Scottish), and wear sunglasses most of the time.  I also take a stick that I can slip in my pocket to reapply regularly to my lips, nose and ears while I work on deck.  Use a cord to secure your glasses, especially if you’re keen to climb in the rigging.
  • Towel.  For shore leave on a deserted island or drying off after a mind-blowing swim hundreds of miles from land.  It’s best to leave the fluffy towels at home and find one that’s quick drying and/or lightweight, like my hammam towel.
  • Headtorch.  An important item for moving around the ship on night watches.  One with a red light is recommended to preserve night vision.
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Think about the things you’ll need onboard to live around the clock, and how you’ll deal with the local climate and different weather conditions.

The comforts

There’s also a few additional things that can make life on board more comfortable.

  • Refillable water bottle.  The combination of sunlight, wind and salt air is really dehydrating.  While at sea you get an idea of the scale of the plastic problem in the world’s oceans, so taking a refillable bottle is just a small step you can make to help.
  • Sleep mask and earplugs.  Sleep is so important, especially if you’re waking up for the midnight to 4am watch.  I find that silicon earplugs are more effective than synthetic, blocking out more of the surrounding sound, and a buff does a great job doubling as an eye mask.
  • Power bank.  Not all ships have a 24-hour power supply for charging devices, so a power bank will provide the juice needed to keep your phone, camera, kindle, e-cigarette and so on from running out just when you need them most.  An international adapter is essential if the ship’s home port is in a different zone to where you purchased your electronics.
  • Something to read.  A kindle, tablet, or a real book; something to get lost in between the busy periods on board.  A book has the added benefit that you can swap it with others in the crew once you finish.  Try one of these suggestions.
  • A journal.  I always keep a travel journal, and it’s a wonderful way to record and reflect on your experiences.  Write, sketch, and note information from the ships’ log to add to your own memories of the voyage.
  • Travel insurance.  Look for one that specifically covers tall ship or offshore sailing.
  • A knife.  Sailors should always carry a knife (according to a colleague, a sailor without a knife is just a spectator).  Just be sure to leave it out of your hand luggage if you have to take a flight to meet your ship.
  • Things you enjoy. Knitting needles and yarn, a sketchbook, twine for practicing knots, playing cards, binoculars and a wildlife guide.  Something to do in your downtime.
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As a keen birdwatcher, my binoculars and favourite wildlife guides are always in my pack.

Toiletries

For many voyages it’s not a problem to pick things up locally in ports on the way, letting you cut down to just a few essentials in your backpack.  On longer passages you may be at sea for a considerable length of time between ports, with little chance to pick up things you might forget, so products need careful consideration.

All but the smallest of ships have showers on board, however the availability of water may be limited on longer voyages by the size of water tanks or the capacity of the water maker.  I pack a reusable cleansing cloth and bar soap with my usual toiletries to keep fresh, rather than single-use wipes that result in more waste.

Although washing water can be restricted seawater is abundant, and I love to swim, so a leave-in conditioner spray keeps my hair manageable between washes, protecting it from the salt and sun.

When it comes to sanitary items, it’s important to think carefully about the products you bring.  Waste management is an important matter onboard a ship, and nothing should be flushed in the toilets (sanitary waste really should not be flushed at home either).  If you use applicator tampons, then they should have non-plastic applicators, which are easier to dispose of, and don’t contribute to plastic waste generated every day.

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My packing list includes shorts, long trousers, t-shirts, bikinis, thermal tights, long-sleeved tops, knitwear, warm socks and a softshell jacket.

Clothing

Comfort moving around the ship is your main priority, so take things you feel good in.  It’s always more exposed out at sea, so ensure you pack long-sleeved shirts or sweaters and long trousers, even if you’re heading for a sunshine destination to meet the ship.

Take a set of thermal tights and a long-sleeved top for blue water passages and colder climes.  Even in the height of summer it can be chilly around the British and Irish Isles.

Flip flops or sliders are great for below decks, going back and forth between showers and bunks, chilling out in the saloon or bar, and shore visits to the beach.  I usually live in my flip flops, but many ships discourage open shoes and bare feet on deck.

If you’re going to be working on the ship, helping out with the repairs and maintenance that keep the vessel going, be sure to pack clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.  There’s always a good chance that a job might involve paint, rust treatment, tar or grease.  Some ships may also ask you to bring your own safety footwear for this kind of work.

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Blue and/or striped clothing and nautical motifs aren’t essential, but sometimes you just can’t help it.
This is what I can’t do without, but is there anything you think I’ve missed?
What do you consider essential for a sailing trip?
Let me know in the comments below.

Why you should try birdwatching.

BirdwatchingHello. My name is Vicky, and I am a birdwatcher.

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.
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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?

David Attenborough

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.
puffins

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 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.

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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.

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There are also a number of 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?
Let me know in the comments below.