Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the Ocean

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I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.

I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean.  So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea.

  • Seven Tenths: the Sea and its Thresholds – James Hamilton Paterson

A series of essays making a luminescent meditation on the meaning of the sea.  Stories of swimming, shipwrecks, salvage, memorials, and unsustainable development form the bones for ideas of anthropology, science, history, and philosophy unveiled in beautiful literary prose.

  • The Whale Rider – Witi Ihimaera

Past and present, myth and reality, wild nature and human lives flow together in this beautiful but challenging retelling of a Maori legend.  Two narratives weave together: Kahu, a young girl seeking recognition from her grandfather, an elder of the tribe; and the poetic migration of the whales reliving the legend of Kahutia Te Rangi, the whalerider. Thoughts on race and prejudice, and the balance between preserving tradition and moving with the times in indigenous cultures makes this much more than an average young adult read.

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The seashell I hatched out of. FACT
  • Under the Sea Wind – Rachel Carson

Most of us will know of Rachel Carson from her seminal work Silent Spring, documenting the environmental crisis arising from the indiscriminate use of pesticides.  But her first and most enduring passion was marine ecology, brought vividly to life in this work by creating a personal connection to individual creatures inhabiting different niches in the marine and coastal environment.  This is a beautiful book to share with young people.

The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.

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  • The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl

This is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions sailing a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Callao in Peru to the remote Tuamoto archipelago.  I don’t know if it’s possible to convey just how influential its been in my life.  I first read it when I was around 10 years old, and fell in love with the idea of living a life filled with adventures; with learning about sailing and navigation throughout history and human migration and movement; with studying marine ecology and oceanography.  I even have a copy in the original Norwegian which has helped me with learning the language.

  • The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch

A summertime coming-of-age novel where the protagonist, nature obsessed 14 year old Miles O’Malley, discovers a giant squid washed up in Skookumchuk Bay, and accidentally becomes a prophet for a local cult.  A beautifully written book that captures both the mystery of the ocean and the uncertainty of adolescence perfectly.

  • RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR – Philip Hoare

Another swirling and surging work examining how the sea shapes our lives and our sense of otherness.  Personal experiences and travels lead to thoughts on swimming, poetry and literature, and philosophy connecting notable characters from Byron to Bowie, Melville to Woolf.  I read this while landlocked through the winter, in between signing off from one ship on the Algarve and joining another in Devon, and it kept the salt air in my hair and sand between my toes.

  • The Silent World – Jacques-Yves Cousteau

A classic book by a pioneer of underwater exploration.  This is Cousteau’s autobiographical account of the experiments and trials leading to the development of SCUBA equipment, or aqualung, along with Phillipe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, and their transformation into “menfish”.  It’s the reason why my internal voice while I’m diving has a French* accent.

*goood moaning.  I didn’t say it was a good one.

  • The Sea Around Us – Rachel Carson

There cannot be too many books by Carson on your TBR list, but I’ll hold myself back by only recommending these two.  In this she tells the story of the oceans, from their geological origins and the beginnings of life, through early exploration and discovery, increasing scientific understanding of processes and systems, to the impact human activity is having.  The dawning of the Anthropocene.  It’s hard to grasp that this book was written in 1951, nearly 70 years ago, given the prescience of the writing, and is just a fresh and relevant today.

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Hanging out with bowriding dolphins.
  • Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

A collection of travel and nature essays crafted on journeys around the coast of the British and Irish Isles and Scandinavia, though that word doesn’t quite feel right for describing the pieces of poetic reflection and personal remembrance that shine like wet pebbles picked from the shore.  A masterclass in the art of observation.

Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.

Kathleen Jamie

  • The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s are One – Sylvia Earle

A familiar figure to many from her TED talks, National Geographic articles, and Mission Blue movement, Earle has a depth and breadth of knowledge equal to her subject matter.  The writing is straightforward and accessible, and her passion shines through in every page as she details all that ails the oceans.  But what is most shining about this book is that despite the overwhelming negativity of the content (overfishing; resource extraction; pollution; biodiversity loss and species extinctions; habitat degradation and destruction; plastic contamination; and how the health of the ocean is vital to our own), the message is that there is still time to take action.

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Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any Ocean themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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Curiosity and Inspiration: Exploring Cambridge like an Adventurer

For many visitors, the historic university city of Cambridge is almost the definition of Englishness and academia (well, unless you have any kind of connection to “the Other Place*”).  Imagine lounging around on college lawns; punting, poetry, and jugs of Pimms; cycling down cobbled streets in a cap and gown; late-night discussions on existentialist philosophy…If only it was possible to become intellectual by osmosis.

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King’s College Gatehouse, the boundary between town and gown.

But the city, through the colleges and museums, inspired many residents to strike out for new horizons in search of adventure and new discoveries.  Cambridge also received specimens, artefacts, treasures from around the globe, and journals filled with ideas that continue to inform and inspire visitors to look further afield, and make plans for their own expeditions.

So to help you get your bearings and set off on a successful expedition, this is my vagabond guide to spending time in Cambridge like a true old-school explorer.

*Oxford, I meant Oxford.

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The view from Magdelen Bridge. Photo Credit: alasdair massie Flickr on cc

Punting on the Cam

If the sun is shining, there’s no better way to get an introduction to the historic heart of the city than from a punt gliding down the River Cam.  These flat-bottom boats are the more accessible way to get out on the water (unless you’ve got great potential as a varsity rower), and propelled and directed with a long pole that pushes against the riverbed.  It requires a bit of skill, and a lot of practice, to make it look as effortless as river guides manage to.

The Backs, the landscaped lawns of several colleges that line the riverbank, is the most popular destination for punters looking to soak up the scenery.  You pass landmarks like the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite spot in the city, and the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College, a wooden bridge which despite appearing to describe an arch is constructed entirely of straight timbers.  Float downstream and make the plans for your next expedition.

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What punting through the backs on a summer day should look like. Photo Credit: Paul Gravestock Flickr on cc

If you fancy the challenge of guiding your own punt, and have the balance to back up the romantic idea, the cost of hiring one is between £25 and £30 per hour, for up to six people (make sure you punt Cambridge style rather than Oxford style) if you don’t want to raise eyebrows and elicit a barely audible tut from observers).  Or you can sit back and let someone else take the strain on a guided tour.  It takes around 45 minutes and is usually between £15 and £20 per person, though you can often make a saving with advanced booking online.  Many guides are students, and give an insight into the day-to-day life of the university and studying in such a historic setting.

If you’re tight on time or budget, a walk on the banks of the Cam and through the Backs is still recommended for the views of the colleges; honey-coloured stone bridges, outstanding classical architecture, weeping willow trees, carpets of spring blossoms, and students lounging around on the lawns (or sheltering from a wet and windy winter day).

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Bicycles racked up under the arches at the Institute of Plant Sciences, Cambridge University

Cambridge University Colleges

The University, founded in 1209, is the second-oldest (after Oxford) in the English-speaking world, fourth-oldest worldwide, and can boast of a plethora of notable alumni, including many names from the realm of travel and exploration: George Mallory, Vivian Fuchs, Thomas Cavendish, Agnes and Margaret Smith, and Robert Macfarlane, to name just a few .

It’s probably illegal to visit Cambridge as a tourist and not take in at least one of the university colleges on a tour, but with 31 constituent colleges I’d say the risk of historic building fatigue is real.  Though each has their own character, I’d go with either King’s College or Trinity College (or both if you’re inclined).  Check opening times in advance, as they can be closed to the public for reading weeks and exams.

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The Gibbs’ building and front lawn at King’s College.  Don’t dare walk on the grass until you’re appointed a Fellow of the College.  Or you’re a duck.

King’s College Chapel

In a city of outstanding historic buildings, King’s College Chapel (£9 entry for adults, Cambridge students and alumni can bring in a couple of guests for free) stands out as the real highlight.  The building is just spectacular, one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country, with a soaring fan-vaulted ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows.  They were spared by Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War, and packed up into boxes during the Second World War for safety, though Cambridge (and Oxford) were said to have been spared the worst of bombing attacks in return for similar leniency toward the German university city of Heidelberg.

Of course, the building is just a backdrop for the world-famous chapel choir.  Hear them sing at evensong daily, twice on Sunday, and rejoice, or just marvel at the acoustics of the space.  (If you miss the performance, you can catch up at Christmas Eve with the broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols.)

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The magnificent stained-glass West Window of King’s College Chapel, and the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world.

The roof of King’s College Chapel is said to rate very highly in The Night Climbers of Cambridge, an anonymous work from the 1930s that inspired the first urban explorers and placers of traffic cones in high places.  Experience the thrill of the night climbers with a trudge up the top of the tower of Great St. Mary’s Church (£4 adults; open until 17.30/16.30 winter).  A 123-step spiral staircase leads to a panoramic view across the college rooftops, and the chance to catch the winter sunset over the city.

Museums

Cambridge has an abundance of exceptional museums, catering for almost every interest, but a true explorer would be most interested in those that inspire with stories of adventures and reveal insights into our understanding of the earth, the creatures we share our planet with, and our own beautiful and diverse cultures.  All listed below are free to visit.

Polar Museum at Scott Polar Research Institute

In 19012 Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had reached first, almost five weeks earlier. Scott and his entire polar party died on their return trek to base.  The Polar Museum is part of the Scott Polar Institute, founded from part of the relief fund established in the wake of that fateful expedition as a memorial to the explorer, and now a global leader in the fields of climate science and glaciology.

If, like me, you’re a fan of tragic explorers who had to eat their boots to survive an icy death, this is your spiritual home.  It gathers together artifacts and material that tell tales of hostile conditions, tireless tenacity, and survival against the odds (balanced with stories of heroic failure), focusing on the feats of the likes of Scott, Shackleton, Franklin, Peary, Amundsen, and Nansen (my hero).  The collections include photographs and sketches, clothing and equipment, journals and letters.

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Artifacts from the Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage.  No boots.

Alongside the relics of exploration and discovery, the museum holds a collection of items revealing the material culture of Arctic peoples.  Scrimshaw (etched bone or ivory)from Siberia.  A knife with a reindeer horn handle, a harness and traces for a reindeer-drawn sled, and skis from Sápmi (Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula).  Beaded and embroidered kamiks (soft-soled boots) stitched from sealskin, a kayak covered with drum-tight skin, and several examples of tupilak, figures carved from walrus ivory and inhabited by a magical lifeforce, from Greenland.

But by far the most affecting items** are the letters written by the expedition chief scientist, Edward Wilson, to the family of Lawrence Oates, and from Scott himself, to his wife and young son, Peter.

Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.

Robert Falcon Scott

**I’m not crying, you’re crying.

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Iguanadon toes

Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences

The oldest and most traditional of the University of Cambridge museums, the Sedgewick Museum was established in 1728 and looks as though it hasn’t changed since.  Think tweed, dust, and glass-fronted cabinets filled with curios that take you through the 4.5 billion year history of time, Darwin’s favourite rocks, dinosaurs, Mary Anning‘s interesting things, and a metre-long model of the Burgess Shale Hallucigenia***.

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Burgess Shale Hallucigenia model in the Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences

***If the words Cambrian Explosion don’t make you just a tiny bit excited, are we even friends?

Museum of Zoology

Recently renovated, this museum is filled with collections that reveal stories of survival and evolution, exploration and extinction across the animal kingdom.  These  include specimens gathered on expedition by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, creatures amassed from hydrothermal vents by ROV, and the strawberry-pink deep ocean Goblin Shark, harvested from your worst nightmares.  The highlight is the awesome, in the truest sense of the word, skeleton of a Fin Whale, its 21 m (70′) length suspended over the entrance to the museum.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

This small museum gathers together a diverse selection of art and artefacts from the nearby and faraway, long ago and right now, to tell fascinating stories from human history.  Among the most interesting is the collection of material from the Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1770s, which sits alongside more contemporary items from the region to illustrate the movement and migration, and relationship with the environment, of Pasifika peoples.

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An evocative headdress carved from a deer skull.  Possibly plucked from that weird recurring Wickerman-themed dream you have.
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Ducks through world cultures #13

Fitzwilliam Museum

This fabulous museum is stuffed with art and antiquities from around the world, and an excellent way to while away a rainy day.  The galleries hold thousands of treasures ranging from illuminated medieval manuscripts, sculptures from ancient Mediterranean civilisations through to Barbara Hepworth, works by Dutch Masters, French Impressionists, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and an extensive collection of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner.

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Rows and rows of bicycles outside the Fitzwilliam Museum.  Beware while you walk, as cyclists weave in and out of pedestrians and traffic.

Explore by Bike

After hours poring over museum exhibits, journals, and artifacts to feed your travel inspiration, you may well be in need of some fresh air.  Cambridge is Britain’s leading cycling city, with miles of dedicated cycle lanes, riverside and canal paths, and virtually no hills.  The council website has maps available to download.

To get around the city there’s a couple of inexpensive cycle hire schemes, such as Mobike and ofo, with plenty available in central locations.  Download the app for your chosen scheme, find a bike, scan the code to unlock it.  Once you’re done, park the bike up and lock it.  Simple.

For adventures further afield, there’s a couple of places where you can pick up a bike for a day’s hire to see more of the Cambridgeshire countryside.  The chalk downland of Gog Magog and Wandlebury Country Park may cause you to re-evaluate the idea that there’s no hills in the area, but they make up for it with the view from the top.

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Low horizons, big skies, and flat fenland landscapes. Photo Credit: elstro_88 Flickr on cc

Or follow National Cycle Network route 11 to Wicken Fen, a spectacular National Nature Reserve that’s one of the oldest in Britain. The wetlands sparkle in summer with dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies, moths, and an inordinate number of beetles.   Look out for herons, hen harriers, kingfishers, and the hardy Konik horses.  When the season is right, listen for booming bitterns, drumming snipe, and the plop of a water vole sliding into the water.

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The original Fitzbillies Chelsea Buns

Eat and Drink

  • Aromi, on Bene’t Street, is an awesome Sicilian-Italian bakery, with huge pizza slices, fresh foccacia sandwiches, and an abundance of yummy things.  Sit in and linger over a coffee, or pick up a picnic to eat in the park.
  • Mediterranean Falafel, in the market, makes the tastiest wraps from their awesome falafels.  I visited with a vegan Israeli friend who raved about how good the food was, and I feel they are particularly qualified to know good falafel and hummus.
  • Michaelhouse Café, in a converted medieval church is great for breakfasts and lunches, with a good selection of sandwiches, soups, quiches, and casseroles.  Close to the city centre, and a perfect coffee and cake stop between museums and colleges.
  • Fitzbillies, just over the road from the Fitzwilliam museum, has been a Cambridge institution since the 1920s.  Kirsty, the Cake Manager****, suggested I try their famous Chelsea buns, sweet and sticky, and made on site to the same traditional recipe since the first days of Fitzbillies.  They also do a full brunch menu and a very sophisticated afternoon tea (with or without a glass of bubbles) of finger sandwiches and scones, but it’s likely you’ll have to wait a while for table space.
  • The Eagle, a pub on Bene’t Street, is well-known as the place where regulars Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they’d “discovered the secret of life” (sidelining Rosalind Franklin and her vital work in the process).  A blue plaque on the wall commemorates the event, as does a beer called DNA.
  • The Mill, a picturesque pub on the banks of the Cam near the punting stations, has a great selection of craft beers, traditional pub food, and board games.
  • The Maid’s Head, on the village green in Wicken, is a traditional thatched pub dating from the 13th century.  It’s the sort of place to drink real ales, tuck into a ploughman’s lunch and watch cricket being played.

****Cake Manger #lifegoals

Have you visited Cambridge yet?
What would you recommend that visitors should see or do?
Comment below to let me know.
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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.