In Search of Martians… in Surrey.

For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice of 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 Woking Martian by Warofdreams via Wikimedia Commons

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 now evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and crossing the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes by the side of the road, and the adventure of being outdoors.

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The frozen heathland of Horsell Common, near the town of Woking. A surprising location for the first extra-terrestrial invasion of our Earth.

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.

Horsell Common Sandpit
The site of the impact, where they found …a cylinder, thirty yards across, glowing hot…. And with faint sounds of movement coming from within.

The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of 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.

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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Through the trees to the heath on Horsell Common.

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.

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Enjoying the frosty view with a hot chocolate at Heather Farm, Horsell Common.

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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…yet across the gulf of space minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us.
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A Vagabond February

Where I’ve Been

My February was pretty quiet in travel terms, as I prepared myself for an epic trip I’m taking in March and April (more on that later). I spent several days working with the Ocean Youth Trust based in Southampton, as part of the refit team on their sail training vessel, John Laing, a 22metre-long custom-built sailing ketch.

After spending much of January preparing the boat, we were able to paint the keel, hull, deck and coach house. Layers and layers of paint, mixed and applied with precision, and she’s looking rather smart sitting in her cradle. A few more jobs, and she’ll be going back into the water at the start of March, ready to be rigged.

The Bear and I managed to get away for a few days to Staffordshire, staying close to the edge of the Peak District. We managed to rack up a couple of 20km plus walks, carrying our new backpack training for our TGO Challenge attempt in May, taking in parts of the Gritstone Trail and Staffordshire Moorland Way, joined by the Bear’s brother, Woo. We did consider camping, to add to the #30NightsOut total, but only very briefly; freezing temperatures overnight were up against Woo’s cosy house nearby and the chance to catch up with his family, Mummy J and Baby Sully.

 

Highlights

IMG_4142v2Getting towards the end of our walk on the Staffordshire Moorland Way, we arrived at a half-frozen Knypersley Reservoir just as the sun was setting. The temperature dropped as we walked through the woodland around the lake, just enough to catch your breath. Or maybe it was just that pretty.

 

News

The Telegraph Outdoor Adventure and Travel Show in London in the middle of the month was a great opportunity to listen to inspiring talks from explorers, and bask in the loveliness of Levison Wood of Walking the Nile fame. Although it feels that the main way into that type of career is serving in the Parachute Regiment or Royal Marines, my travel buddy Rach helpfully pointed out I do share the characteristic with them of “not really having a proper job”.

 

I’ve Been Reading/ Watching

Guy Martin. Crackin’.  Picture from Wikipedia.

This month I discovered Compass Cultura, an online travel magazine published monthly. Each issue has three long-form articles, of around 3,000 words each, that explore an idea, place or person in depth. There’s no advertising or sponsored pieces, and no Buzzfeed-style round-up lists. It’s quite refreshing to be immersed in a piece of well-written, compelling journalism. You can read one story for free each month, or subscribe for the full magazine, plus back-issues, and I urge you to check it out.

I’ve also been drawn in by Channel 4’s Our Guy in India, following motorcycle racer and all-round speed freak Guy Martin on a tour through India, from mountains and tea plantations in the north to the beaches of Goa. I’m a little bit in love with Guy, but it’s hard not to fall for his down-to-earth, cheeky-chappie personality, then be awed by his adventurous streak as he enters one of the craziest motorbike races you’ll ever see.

 

Best of the Blogs

Earlier in February I wrote about why I’m not a food blogger. Simply put, it’s because I like to eat and I don’t like to share, and am too lazy to cook and clean up after myself. But I do enjoy occasionally dipping into other travel blogs that write about food, just to see what they’ve got cooking, like Vanessa’s awesome pomegranate and mango salsa on Turnipseed Travel, or Niamh’s gluten-free buckwheat pancakes with plums and almonds on Eat Like a Girl.  I made a little bit of an effort for Pancake Day, with some basic pancakes spread thickly with Nutella.  They were gone before I could get my phone out of my bag to take a snap.

I’ve also really enjoyed reading about Emma’s exploration of the Oxford food scene on Gotta Keep Movin’. It’s a place I know well, but she’s given me a new side of the city to discover on my next visit.

 

My Most Popular Instagram

IMG_4190v2It was this one, of the interior of Litchfield Cathedral. An impromptu lunch stop on our route home from North Staffordshire.  The cathedral is famous for having three spires, and seeing intense fighting during the English Civil War.  Holes from musket fire are still visible in the outer walls, which look a little like this:

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Coming Up Next Month

As you read this, I’ll be on the verge of taking part in my biggest trip for a long time. At the very start of March, I’m flying across the Atlantic to the heavenly holiday hotspot of Bermuda, famed for its coral reefs, pink sand beaches and rum cocktails. How lovely does that sound? Mark Twain is claimed to have said, “You go to heaven if you want – I’ll stay here in Bermuda.”

Unfortunately I can’t stay there forever, but I will be leaving the islands in style, on board TS Lord Nelson, a three-masted barque owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust. “Nellie” as she’s affectionately known, is unique in the world of tall ships (along with her sister-ship Tenacious), in having been designed with accessibility in mind, allowing people with different physical abilities to sail together on equal terms.

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Lord Nelson. Photo from the Jubilee Sailing Trust.

I’ll be part of Nellie’s crew for an Atlantic crossing, taking her from Bermuda back to Britain, arriving into Southampton in mid-April, after 30 days or so at sea. It might be a little quiet on the blog and social media over that period, but keep a look out for updates and for a full-account of the adventure once I get back.

Thanks for following These Vagabond Shoes. For real-time updates (when I have connection with the outside world!) you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

A Vagabond January

To help meet my goal of being more focused on work, and in the rest of my life, I’ve been noting down little achievements in my journal. But without taking time to revisit what I’ve done and reflect on milestones I’ve passed, I’ll never maintain the momentum I had at the start of the year. So each month I’m aiming to publish a review of what I’ve been up to.

Where I’ve Been

I kicked off my #30NightsOut challenge to spend more time outdoors in 2015 with a Hogmanay camping trip with a few friends to White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire. Huddled round the campfire, we celebrated the New Year with a feast of ribs, corn on the cob and sweet potatoes roasted on the fire, and washed down with a few glasses of bubbly. We were able to watch several firework displays from our vantage point, until wind and drizzle forced us to bed in the wee hours. Grotty weather put paid to our plans to climb the hill in the morning, so we retreated home to the comfort of pyjamas, duvets and endless cups of tea.

I’ve entered the 2015 TGO Challenge, a demanding backpack across Scotland from coast-to-coast, that will take place in May. The Bear (my bf) and I are going to hike for approximately 14 days, so we’ve been out on several training walks in the countryside of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

I’m not really one for sitting about, as you might gather, so while I’m looking for work, I’ve got myself involved in a project with the Ocean Youth Trust based in Southampton. I’m working with a team over the winter to refit their sail training vessel, John Laing, a 22metre-long ketch custom-built to be able to sail anywhere in the world. So far, my jobs have been rather dusty as we strip back old paint, ready for a fresh coat.

Highlights

After a hard day of sanding on John Laing, I escaped out to the pretty village of Lymington in the heart of the New Forest for a walk across the wintry heathland. The pale silvery sunset looked like it might promise some snow, but all we got was a crisp hard frost that turned the heather crunchy.

News

I visited the Adventure Travel Show in London on the 18th January. It was exciting to browse the stands and see travel options available, but the most inspiring part of the day was listening to talks from people like Benedict Allen and Ann Daniels. I was particularly inspired by a talk by Russ Malkin about filming his travels, and really want to try some of his tips for myself.  Just need to get a camera…

I’ve Been Reading

I’m a massive bookworm. Getting stuck into a good read is just one of life’s pleasures, and I particularly love books that explore a topic in exquisite detail. Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland is a spell-binding examination of the connection between forests and fairytales, and how both have shaped the culture and experience of Northern Europeans like myself. Each chapter ends with Maitland’s retelling of a familiar tale.

As a lighter diversion, I also read Sihpromatum: I Grew My Boobs in China by Savannah Grace, which I picked up as a Kindle freebie. A self-published memoir written for young-adults, this is a coming-of-age tale that charts Grace’s transition from a whiny, self-centred teen to a young adult with a wide-eyed wonder about the world.

I’ve also spent a lot of my usual reading time this month listening to the BBC podcast of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Quite frankly, big books feel a little daunting to me (perhaps from the time I dozed off and dropped the hardback copy of A Game of Thrones on my face, giving myself a black eye), but the hour long chunks of the story have been perfect, and I can lie back on the sofa and daydream of the drama and romance of Tsarist Russia without worrying about injury.

Best of the Blogs

This month I shared an account of the time I set out on a trip to explore Oslo, and only managed to spend time in the hotel before flying out again. Visiting Scandinavia at this time of year is likely to mean snow and freezing temperatures, but these tips for making the best out of winter travel curated by Turnipseed Travel will inspire you to get out into the cold. Closer to home, I enjoyed following the bloggers that took part in the #blogmanay experience, in particular these stunning pictures of Glencoe by Finding The Universe. But if getting knee-deep in snow really isn’t your thing the naughty guide to winter in London by Girl vs Globe might be more up your street.

My Most Popular Instagram

IMG_3651v1This shot of the Parthenon, at the top of the Acropolis, is a flashback to my time in Athens for the TBEX Conference in October last year.

Coming Up Next Month

I’ll be obsessing over maps in February, as I put together my route across Scotland for the TGO Challenge, and send it off for approval from the event co-ordinators on the 14th. I’ll also be out for some more long training walks and to test some of the equipment I’m planning on carrying.

I’ve got a short-break to the Peak District planned for the start of the month, which is bound to include more hiking. Depending on conditions, I might also be tempted to spend a night under canvas for my #30NightsOut challenge, although I’m keeping my fingers crossed for snow and the excuse to find a good pub with a roaring fire at the end of the day.

That’s it for this month. Thank you for following These Vagabond Shoes. For real-time updates from my adventures, you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

My Goals for 2015

Kaikoura Dawn2I really love this time of year. Those few days between Christmas and New Year are always packed with activities, obligations and chores, then the celebrations themselves fill your time. But now, a few days into the new year, it really does feel like a fresh start.

It’s exciting and motivating, and naturally it feels like time to set goals for the year ahead and think about the things I want to achieve, while I’m galvanised to action. I do like the idea of New Year’s resolutions, but never manage to pin down my hopes and intentions into one fully-formed idea in the past, let alone strive to keep to a plan or smash a target by a certain time. And don’t New Year’s resolutions tend to end in failure anyway?

But, I think it’s essential to keep developing as a person, to learn new skills and improve or master others, to try new experiences and fulfil ambitions, in short to become a more rounded, insightful and appreciative person. So, I’m going to go with the crowd and set myself some goals for the year ahead, keeping them bite-sized and thus hopefully achievable.

Here’s what I’ll be working at in 2015…

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Object

In the English town of Windsor, on the River Thames, there is a full-sized replica of a Hawker Hurricane aircraft, positioned as if it’s skimming low over the gardens on the river’s edge.  It commemorates Sir Sydney Camm, designer of the aircraft, and local resident, and something much more.IMG_1783

The Hurricane was known as the workhorse of the RAF during the Battle of Britain in 1940,  contributing to what was considered a decisive victory for the British.  Hurricanes shot down more enemy aircraft during WWII than all other types of aircraft combined.

The theme of this week’s photo challenge is object.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Juxtaposition

Posted a little later than planned, as I’ve been tucked up in bed with the flu this week, this is my contribution to this week’s photo challenge exploring interesting juxtaposition and unexpected pairings.

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I like this picture taken from the viewing platform at the top of the Rainforest Biome at the Eden Project, which looks just like an aerial view across the jungle canopy.  There’s even a tiny tin-roofed shack hiding amongst the foliage.  But the backdrop to this apparently natural scene is a futuristic-looking plastic and steel geodesic dome, which keeps out the English weather.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Window

Depending on where you are, and whether you are looking in from outside or out from inside, windows reveal different things. They are a portal out to the world, or a glimpse into people’s lives. Like on Play School, windows can lead you into a story.

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Doesn’t rhyme with crumble.

This is the rear window of a Land Rover Defender 110 in the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon, Warwickshire; one of several of the vehicles used in the Bond film Skyfall.  It still bears all its battle scars, and no doubt could tell a story or two.

The theme of this week’s Photo Challenge is windows.

A Vagabond Year 2013

The Weekly Photo challenge theme this week is Joy.

For me, the things that bring me joy are the things that really make me feel alive, that keep me connected to the natural world around me; often the experiences you only get by getting outdoors and leaving the city behind, finding a wild place and all that it offers.

These are some of the things that I’ve captured on instagram over this year that have made me feel joyful.  If I have any resolutions for next year, it’s to get out and do more with my time, enjoy the little things, and make better connections with the people around me.natural world wordie

Have a happy Hogmanay, and I wish you all the best for 2014.  May your year be filled with travels, adventures and joy.

Vicky xx

12 Days of Christmas #9: Solstice

Today is the darkest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere; the winter solstice.  Also known as the longest night or the shortest day, this is the day on which the sun has its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky, the point where the sun stands still (solstice is derived from the Latin sol, sun, and sistere, to stand still).  From tomorrow morning we’ll start to see the gradual lengthening of days and shortening of nights, a reversal of the pattern seen up until now.

This seasonal pattern of decline, death, rebirth and growth was extremely important to ancient peoples and midwinter was an important turning point in the year; a time for family gatherings, celebration and feasting, often with fires or candles lit during the hours of darkness.  Many of these ancient rituals inspired and informed the familiar traditions surrounding Christmas and other winter festivals celebrated today.

The movements of the sun are traced in a number of ancient buildings and structures around the world.  Here are 5 of the most well-known places to observe the winter solstice.

5.  Karnak temple complex, Luxor, Egypt.  On the solstice, the sun rises between the uprights of the gate of Nectanebo, illuminating the sanctuary of Amoun-Re and the obelisk of Hatchepsut.

Sunrise at Karnak. Image from wilderness-ventures-egypt.com

4.  Mnajdra temple complex, Malta.  One of the most ancient known religious sites on Earth, the lowest temple at Mnajdra is aligned so that light from sunrises at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes passes through the main doorway and along the main axis of the site.  On the solstices sunlight illuminates the megaliths at either side of the doorway.

Winter solstice at Mnajdra, Malta. Image from gozonews.com

3.  Maeshowe, Orkney, Scotland.  At more than 5000 years old, the Maeshowe chambered cairn is at the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering several neolithic sites on the mainland of Orkney.  An image of the rising sun is projected on to the back wall of the tomb.

Maeshowe, Orkney. Image from Orkneyjar.com

2.  Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne), County Meath, Ireland.  Visitors to the prehistoric tomb at Newgrange can apply to a lottery for tickets to witness the solstice sunrise as it illuminates the inside of the chamber.  More than 25,000 people apply each year, but only 10 tickets are allocated.

Sunlight floods the chamber in Newgrange. Image from irishcentral.com

1.  Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England.  Despite heavy rain last night, more than 3,500 people are reported to have gathered at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise this morning.

Druids celebrating the solstice at Stonehenge, England. Image from nationalgeographic.co.uk