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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Why Walking is the Best Way to Explore

There truly is no better way of exploring places than on foot. Walking heightens the senses like no other form of transport can, giving a genuine understanding of the world around you. Much of what I’ve discovered on my travels I’ve learned through my feet, walking through cities, coasts and countryside.

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Taking a break by the river on a walk across Knoydart, with Luinne Bheinn in the background.

Walking feeds the senses

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Walking the city streets, rain or shine. Photo Credit: Rodrigo Soldon 2 via creative commons

Moving at a slower pace, in, rather than through, your surroundings, enhances your awareness of the small sensations of a place. The reverberation of sounds from near and far, a sudden bright splash of colour or a sharp waft of smell, even the gentle movement of air, translate into the types of experience all travellers relish. Stumbling upon a pavement café with excellent coffee and cake, or a street food vendor dishing up a local delicacy. Catching a glimpse of the flyer for live music at at a hip venue, some distinctive local architecture, or the intriguing piece of street art, laden with political meaning. A fresh breeze round a corner showing the direction to the harbour, with the promise of freshly-caught seafood and a chilled glass of wine as you watch fishermen go about their business.

Then the intangibles of the place that confirm its geography: salt-loaded air, the shriek of gulls, sparkling crystals in the grey granite walls of my home town, catching the low sun of a northern autumn day. The lapping of water, the leafy shadows across the path, blossom on the trees, weather changes, birdsong. Noticing everything as an ardent naturalist to pin down the season, the latitude and longitude, the reason for being in this place, here and now.

Walking makes connections

Cities, in the main, are designed to be walked. Possibilities open up beyond bus routes and tube stations, and walkers invent their own ways to go, building new links between A and B. With many people now spending a majority of time indoors, at home, in the office, in shops, hotels, bars, galleries, a number of disconnected interiors, walking inhabits the spaces in between. It gives a sense of moving through the whole world, not just a modest part.

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Photo Credit: -LucaM- Photography via creative commons

On foot, landmarks take on additional relevance, as travellers look for focal points in the landscape, building their individual maps and orientating themselves by experience. Coming and going, getting to know places, you seed them with a crop of stories and associations. Relating personal geography to maps provides bearing to locations in both space and time, revealing hidden histories through street names, districts, parks, trail marks, and creating new possibilities for exploration.

Walking is good for body and soul

Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity, requiring no special training or equipment. Almost everyone can do it, anywhere, and at any time. Those new to idea of exploring places on foot can start slowly, building up gradually as they gain confidence, whilst others more comfortable with distance and direction will know where and when they can push their limits. And like all physical exertion, especially that taking place outdoors, in the fresh air, the surge of chemicals within your physiology focuses the mind, and leaves the body relaxed.

High on the Hardangervidda in Norway, taking in the views.
High on the Hardangervidda in Norway, taking in the views.

Walking is free, and freeing

A mainstay item of the budget traveller’s itinerary, walking is magnificently free of charge. But more than this, the degree of self-reliance, the little bit of imagination, and the sense of adventure necessary to walk out and explore, gives you freedom. Freedom from schedules and timetables, freedom from the usual daily routine; the luxury of time and space. Freedom to think.

That great ideas and thoughts are formed whilst walking, especially whilst walking alone, is a concept many writers adhered to, from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to travel writer Bruce Chatwin to criminal mastermind Agatha Christie. New places offer up new thoughts, new alternatives. The frequent punctuation of a city, imparting countless grains of ideas, giving way to longer, more uninterrupted thoughts in open landscapes, stretching all the way to the horizon.

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Off on a winter walk through frozen fields.

And then myself, the buoyant rhythm of arms swinging in time with legs that only comes from long miles, is a meditation on living in the moment, of being aware of here and now. As a child, roaming freely in my surroundings, the opportunity to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back, was what developed my sense of adventure, my imagination, and my independence. I relish the opportunity to go out of my way, beyond the boundaries of what I know, then find my way back those few extra miles, on a new trail or by the needle of a compass; to lose myself for a time, though I know where I am. Then to round a corner or crest a ridge and return to the start, to the familiar, and see it as if I have never seen this place before.

Looking Back on My Adventures: 2015 Travel Review

As the old year ends and the new begins, we’re drawn to reflect on happenings from the past 12 months, and start to ponder possibilities for the future.  It’s an odd position for me, as I’ve had an unpredictable employment situation for the past few years, working short-term “filler jobs” whilst I tried to get back into conservation.  Things that made planning tricky, if not an impossibility.

However, 2015 was the year where I learned to embrace the challenge that a complete lack of structure offered, and to jump at any opportunities that turned up.  These are some of the highlights of my adventures.

I visited lots of nature reserves and national parks across Britain, and beyond, and indulged my love of the natural world.  I got a job, just for the summer, as a Ranger in the idyllic New Forest National Park.  Then when that seasonal contract ended I got another, just for the winter, as a Ranger watching migrating birds visiting the coast of the Isle of Wight.

I did a lot of walking this year.  I walked most of the way across Bermuda on the Old Railway Trail.  Then hiked to the volcanic summit of the island of Faial in the Azores.  And I completed over 100 km across Scotland too, taking in a couple of mountains on the way, on the TGO Challenge.   (I had to withdraw halfway to go for an interview, but I did get the job, so it was worthwhile).  I got to know the more out of the way parts of the places I visited, learning their secrets and hidden histories.

I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, from Bermuda to England, via the Azores, on a tall ship.  I moved house, twice.  Three times if you count living on the ship, as I stayed on after my voyage to do maintenance work.   I joined the crew of another boat for a while too.  I caught up with old friends all over the place, and made lots of new friends along the way.

One thing that really didn’t keep up with the momentum was this blog.  Oops!  Ideas for improvements dragged on without ever happening, and several weeks without communications didn’t help either (I have a fat handwritten journal from my sailing voyages beyond the realms of wifi).  So my big resolution for 2016 is to get writing and really make an effort with making this blog brilliant.

And, as for the rest of the year? Well, I know my current job will end at the end of March, and most likely there will be another house move on the cards.  And there’s a couple of things in the pipeline for the summer, fingers crossed.  But although I don’t know exactly what’s to come in 2016,  I know I’m more than ready for it.

The final thing left to say is a massive thank you to all that read my blog.  These Vagabond Shoes started life as a journal of my travels for family and friends, but since then it’s continued to grow, and my adventures have been read by more people than I ever though.  Thank you so much for the support, and I hope you stick with me to share the stories that the future has in store.

All the best for 2016,

Vicky xxx

 

5 Seafaring Tales for a Sailing Holiday

Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.
Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.

I’m all at sea this month, quite literally, as I sail from Bermuda back to Britain on the STS Lord Nelson. On board we keep a watch system, with four teams working a rota to keep the ship sailing and carry out the tasks essential for everyone to live together in such close confines. Our down time, plus the lack of distractions, gives plenty of time to get lost in a good book. So, here are my recommendations for seafaring tales to take on a sailing trip. Continue reading

5 Books Set in Cold Places to Curl Up With This Winter

IMG_3884Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.  And what makes a cold winter evening even better is a good book to curl up with (and perhaps also a glass or two of amaretto and ice). When the wind is howling and sleet lashing the window, snuggle into your favourite tartan jammies, and read all about the ice and snow from the warmth and comfort of your armchair.  With the radio playing softly in the background, lights sparkling on the Christmas tree, and someone bringing warm mince pies occasionally, I can’t think of a more perfect way to enjoy the books below.

 

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

In the introduction to this book, Cherry-Garrard notes: Polar Exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has been devised. As the youngest member of the team accompanying Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole, Cherry-Garrard was one of only three survivors, and part of the rescue mission that discovered the frozen bodies of his colleagues. His account pieces together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen south.

Buy it here.

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

Long fascinated by the icy landscapes and exotic culture, Ehrlich travels extensively in Greenland, meeting people walking the line between a traditional way of life and modern development. She draws heavily on the journals of Danish-Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen from the 1920s and 30s, retracing expeditions by kayak and dogsled. The book combines travel diary with biography, ethnographic study and geography. 

Buy it here.

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A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

Finnish author Jansson is best known for the Moomin stories, and although this collection of short pieces is for adults, it captures the same feeling of childlike wonder her famous creations have for nature, landscape and life. The beautifully observed stories have a lightness of touch and at the same time a deep truth, making them a joy to read. For a bonus recommendation, seek out her short novel The True Deceiver as a follow up. 

Buy it here.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

This book is difficult to summarise in just a short paragraph. It details Lopez’s travels in the High Arctic, meditating on the landscapes and wildlife, how we explain and interact with them, drawing on historical, cultural, philosophical and scientific significances. This is not an easy book to digest, but the sparklingly beautiful prose and interesting, informative subjects make you want to take your time, and enjoy the brilliance. Best dipped into over a series of winter afternoons. 

Buy it here.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver 

A bone-chilling ghost story set in an abandoned whaling camp in the Spitzbergen archipelago, high in the Arctic, in the late 1930s. With thoughts of impending war not far from the collective consciousness, a British scientific expedition establish themselves in a remote corner, against the advice of the Norwegian administration. As the dazzling brightness of 24-hour daylight gives way to the creeping polar night, a growing unease builds in the team, but is the horror a presence in the darkness or the madness of isolation in a challenging environment?  Buy it here.

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Have you got any icy and snowy suggestions for a wintry reading list?

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow them to buy a book I recommend, I get a small payment from the company, at no charge to you whatsoever. It helps keep my book habit going.

Another Day in Paradise at the Eden Project (Photo Gallery)

My last post about the Eden Project just didn’t contain enough pictures to do justice to the amazing displays, fantastic flowers and informative interpretation. So here’s a selection of pictures to guide you through the different biomes.  Continue reading

In the Garden of Eden

The Biomes, The Eden Project
The Biomes, The Eden Project

Hidden in an old china clay pit near St Austell in Cornwall are three enormous interlinked geodesic domes, like the secret greenhouse hideaway of a villainous horticulturist from a Bond film*: the Eden Project. Describing itself variously as the world’s largest conservatory, an exciting educational playground, and an inspiring environmental resource, the Eden Project is a huge garden, both outdoors and inside, which highlights our human interconnectivity with the natural world.

Continue reading

Quite Interesting: Hirvikolari

An inevitability of travelling is picking up odd words and phrases in the various different languages you encounter.  And certain words and phrases can give you an insight into the local culture, environment or mindset, particularly those which don’t have a direct translation into your native tongue. Take for example, hirvikolari, a Finnish word that was used in a BBC news article the other week. The incident described wasn’t particularly newsworthy in international terms, describing a traffic incident in downtown Helsinki, but the word hirvikolari clearly tickled the writer enough to make it into a story for the UK.

Must dash, I have a meeting in the Helsinki office at 11am. Image from bbc.co.uk

A hirvikolari is a specific type of Finnish traffic accident involving an elk (also known as a moose in North America). Shambling slowly out of thick forest in the dark and onto quiet roads, the creature’s long legs and bulky body make a collision particularly dangerous for drivers.   Accidents are known to occur frequently enough that Scandinavian car manufacturers Volvo and Saab constructed their vehicles to cope with a “moose-crash”.

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

One fish, two fish, red fish, blackfish.

There’s a documentary film I’m going to watch on TV tonight.  It’s called Blackfish, and it discusses the story surrounding an orca kept in a SeaWorld theme park that gained notoriety from his involvement in the deaths of three individuals.  It’s showing tonight at 9pm (GMT) on BBC4 in the UK, or you can watch the trailer here and download the rest of the film from various sources.

blackfish As dolphin encounters are an item that often features highly on “bucket lists” and “things to do before you…” lists, I think its quite important for participants to be fully informed and aware of the wider impacts of their choices.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about the film and the issues it raises, or whether you’ve visited a SeaWorld theme park or had an encounter with cetaceans in a captive environment.  Don’t miss it!