Uninvited guests

Well that week didn’t quite pan out as expected.

Friends came round for dinner on Tuesday evening and I did my best to play the genial host but I was struggling with a throat that was so painful that even drinking wine was an effort. Now that’s painful! I assumed that I had ulcers in my throat, something I do suffer from occasionally, but it turned out that while Gill and I had invited two friends for dinner, my body was entertaining a whole crowd of uninvited guests of the streptococci bacterial variety. In other words, I had tonsillitis. It was an interesting if unpleasant week so I thought I would document it.

At some indeterminate moment I had been attacked by the beastly and seriously unfriendly bacteria and as it made its way into my mouth and attempted to breach my defences, alarms bells had sounded calling my body’s immune system to arms. In my mind my throat was the defensive drawbridge and portcullis of a splendid English castle with my immune system mustering bravely inside the walls while the invading army threw everything it had at the barricades. From what I have read of these situations there is always a lot of fire, boiling oil, flying rocks and multitudes of arrows involved which explains why my throat felt like it did since it was bearing the brunt of both attack and defence. It should have been a straightforward skirmish in which the brave armies of my immune system despatched the enemy clinically and quickly, leaving me with no more than a sore throat and the benefit of being able to play the sympathy card for a day or two and maybe get out of the washing up.

The problem with war is that it never sticks to the program and it only takes one unexpected flap of the butterfly’s wings to turn the outcome on its head. In this case the course of events was probably disrupted by a rogue mercenary army that entered the battlefield a little while after our dinner party. You see I was still under the illusion that the pain in my throat was caused by ulcers so I cleverly adopted a strategy of numbing the offending area with copious amounts of red wine. Of course, when that didn’t work my wine fuddled brain simply came up with the unimaginative solution of simply drinking more quickly. Eventually, I didn’t know, or care, if the strategy was working or not as we abandoned the dishes to the morning and collapsed into bed and blissful sleep. Or so I thought.

Meanwhile: back at the scene of the main battle. The immune system has called up every able bodied man woman and child in the land to fight the evil invaders when a message reaches the commanders that a second army of drunken, venomous mercenaries is approaching the liver, hell bent on death and destruction. Several divisions are quickly despatched to deal with this new threat which, it turns out, I had stupidly invited in thinking they would help the situation. (Part of the army was even made up of the highly respected Chateauneuf brigade no less) Back at the gates of the castle, the now struggling defences are crumbling and despite heavy losses those evil Streptococcus bugs are just using the bodies of their dead colleagues to build a bridge over the walls. It’s a scene straight out of hell with pain and suffering everywhere you look and that is the point at which I woke up.

I thought I was dying. My throat was so swollen I was having difficulty breathing normally and the pain was terrible. It was as if I had swallowed a toasted cactus plant that had somehow developed the ability to samba dance. The remainder of the night was like some kind of taster evening for those considering a future in hell and it turned out to be a telling introduction to how the next six days would go. I’m sure it wasn’t really that bad but things always seem worse at night don’t they?

I’m better now. After six days of torture I gave in and went to the doctor. She prescribed the anti-bacterial equivalent of the SAS which just marched right in there and destroyed everything in its path. The evil bugs are gone, along with most of the friendly ones too I suspect, but at least I can get back to enjoying the basics in life now. You know; things like swallowing, eating and talking without wincing and winging all the time. Oh and sleeping at night, that turns out to be under-rated too, until you haven’t been able to do it for a few days.

Spot the correct medication

Spot the correct medication

There was half a bottle of red wine left over from the dinner party and it’s been sitting on the shelf mocking me for my stupidity all week. I poured it down the sink last night (it was off, don’ t worry I haven’t gone mad) and as it disappeared down the plughole I was reminded to pay a bit more attention to my body next time something like this happens. Red wine, in its many forms, is a truly wonderful thing but as a cure for tonsillitis it’s rubbish.

The call of the wild

The sound of the rain and sleet on the roof coupled with the wind whistling through the trees and a temperature of just over four centigrade is doing nothing to make me wish I was outside today. Then again, there are many thousands of people in Britain today who will be heading out there in the name of sport, adventure and challenge which makes me wonder what it is about the outdoors, nature and physical exercise that is so enduringly appealing. It seems to me that the more we isolate ourselves from the natural world with our air conditioned cars, centrally heated homes and second hand wilderness delivered through the TV and internet and the more interested in the outdoors we become.

Maybe I have a warped perspective because of my own involvement with cycling, walking and working for a wildlife charity but I get the distinct impression that interest in the outdoors is booming. According to the Outdoor Foundation in America participation in outdoor activities is steady or very slightly declining. Having said that, a whopping 49% of Americans took part in some kind of outdoor recreation in 2014 and according to a Sport England 2014 survey that figure was 59% in the UK. Whatever the trend, that is a huge amount of interest and it raises the question of why are so many people keen to get outdoors at a time when we have never had a more comfortable or entertaining indoor alternative.

My hunch, and it’s only a hunch, is that we haven’t actually evolved anywhere near as far as we sometimes think we have. ‘Modern civilization’ as we call it is still a very, very new concept and only represents the tiniest part of mankind’s presence on the earth. Our new found sophistication is a bit like your first school blazer in that it will take a while to grow into it. Intellectually we can rationalise our great achievement in creating a safe, warm and secure environment in our towns and cities. We can marvel at the cleverness of the many different forms of entertainment we have created; from 3D movies to interactive computer games but the reality is that they are no substitute for the wonders of the great outdoors. Our heads may be ready for driverless cars and flights into space but our bodies and souls still crave the feel of warm sun on our faces or the sound of a blackbird singing at dusk.

This isn’t a rant against modern life by the way. I’m not suggesting for a minute that we should abandon our smart inventions and eschew the comforts of twenty first century living. I just think we need to have some perspective and appreciation of how important the outdoors and nature still is and how ingrained in us it must be. We have spent hundreds of thousands of years as a species living an outdoor life and a mere few hundred escaping it. It isn’t surprising that the lure of the wild draws us to walk in the countryside, to marvel at the beauty of nature or to find peace and solace in a magical sunset.

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Dawn over Staithes harbour, North Yorkshire, England

My worry is that each generation will grow more isolated from these things and I hope passionately that we won’t let that happen. One of the most rewarding parts of my new job is talking to children and their parents as they explore the world of nature on the Brockholes reserve. The innate fascination that children have with all things wild reminds me that we are a long way from evolving into urban creatures for whom the natural world is irrelevant and it gives me hope. When we do finally get those self-drive cars that we are now promised I really hope we will use them to transport ourselves to the countryside where we can abandon them for a few precious hours while we reconnect with our deeply embedded roots.

Those pesky blackthorns

If you read yesterday’s blog then you will know that we were supposed to be hosting a woman called Adrianne Hill on the first night of her round Britain bike ride on the exact anniversary of our own departure two years ago. The good news is that we did host her; but only just.

Firm new friends

Firm new friends

We were expecting her sometime in the afternoon so the first hint that things weren’t exactly running smoothly came with a text informing us that she would be with us early evening. We just assumed that she was taking her time and enjoying exploring the lovely Lancashire countryside. Several texts later though it became obvious that the horrible headwind, frequent wintry showers and unpredictable Garmin route suggestions were taking their toll. I offered to ride out and meet Adrianne to give her a bit of company for the last ten miles which she gratefully accepted but before I was five miles from home she phoned to say she was being hampered by multiple punctures which explained the delays. I immediately went into emergency rescue mode which achieved nothing apart from proving how incredibly unfit I am at the moment and the idea of sprinting to her aid was nothing more than a figment of my imagination. I finally found her and discovered that my damsel in distress was in fact a very cheerful, funny, optimistic, independent and resilient soul whose only flaw was a tendency to be just a teeny weeny bit disorganised. By this I mean that the punctures she was dealing with were in the 20” wheels of her trailer whilst all her spare inner tubes were of a 27” variety to fit the bicycle wheels. She had persistently patched the offending tube but unlike her mood, the tyre remained obstinately flat; no doubt due to an unseen thorn remaining in the tyre. We had no choice but to call for Thunderbird 2 in the form of Gill in the car who quickly loaded up the trailer and Adrianne’s bags and took off up the dual carriageway for home. Fortunately she had to return past us after turning round and fortunately she noticed that we weren’t speeding homeward but rather we were looking dejectedly at yet another flat tyre, this time it was Adrianne’s front wheel! Those black thorns have a lot to answer for. To her credit Gill stayed with us for moral support while I changed the tube as fast as my now freezing fingers would let me.

In fading light and a bit late for supper we finally made it home sometime after 9pm and salvaged what was left of the evening with copious amounts of food, a little wine and lots of laughter. I’ve said it before but cycle touring is always a roller coaster of ups and downs of every type but they don’t normally all come along on the first day. Welcome to touring Adrianne.

Off she goes

Day two, here we go.

 

We packed her on her way this morning with cheese and salad sandwiches, a homemade scone and two brand new 20” inner tubes. As I am writing this she has reported yet another puncture but she is battling on regardless. I have every faith in her ability to make it around our coastline because beneath her petite frame and beaming smile I think there lies a character that is tougher than the toughest blackthorn and believe me, they don’t come any tougher.

Mixed emotions

Bicycle security chickens at the first campsite

Bicycle security chickens at the first campsite

It’s coming around to the second anniversary of our big adventure cycling around the coast of Britain and as always at this time of year I find there are endless memory joggers that cause me mixed emotions of joy and consternation. Joy at such happy memories and consternation over whether we will ever manage to tear up our new anchors and break away to taste that amazing freedom once more.

I have always followed other people’s adventures but for obvious reasons I am now particularly drawn to any endeavour to circumnavigate our coast by whatever means. I am currently following Quintin Lake who is walking the coast and creating a stunning photographic record of his journey, Elise Downing who is running the circuit and Sean Conway who has upped the anti and is attempting an extraordinary triathlon cycling, running and swimming the route. All of these adventurers have been reminding me acutely of our own experience but when it turned out that Elise and Sean would both be passing through our village the week before our two year anniversary I found myself reliving our departure like it was yesterday.

Great to meet you Sean

Great to meet you Sean

But just when I thought these coincidences couldn’t get even more profound we received an e-mail from yet another intrepid soul about to embark on her own odyssey.

Adrianne Hill wrote to us via the Warm Showers cycle tourers hosting site and asked if we could put her up one day next week. She went on to explain that she was cycling the coast of Britain and we could learn about her journey from her website. Obviously this piqued my interest so I went to find out more only to discover that she has raised the bar in more ways than one. Not only is she cycling the coast but she then intends to run from Lands End to John O’ Groats before crossing the country SUP style (Stand Up Paddle) to complete her own unique triathlon. That is an impressive and ambitious trip but what really bowled me over was when and where she was starting from. She is leaving Liverpool today, Tuesday the 26th April, exactly two years to the day since we set off and she is staying with us tonight! I’m not a believer in fate and all that stuff but really, Mystic Meg could not have written this stuff.

Ready for the off on day one.

Full of nervous anticipation two years ago today

All of these poignant reminders only serve to put me in reflective mood as I look back with timely perspective at our own trip and contemplate what I learned from it. As predicted it really did change me in all sorts of ways, most of which I couldn’t see without the benefit of two year’s hindsight. Trying to assess the effects of a trip like ours immediately on our return was a bit like standing two feet from a very large oil painting and trying to take in the subject. All you see is a blur of colour and texture which may be interesting and even attractive but you get no sense of what the painting is about. Looking back over a decent time span is like stepping back from the work of art and all of a sudden everything comes into view.

I wrote a whole list of the ways in which I believe I have changed as a result of our adventure which included things like being less materialistic, believing in the good in people and appreciating the simple pleasures in life but the one thing that really stands out for me is that I just feel more content. I feel like I have found my place. I think I have always had a yearning to find out what it would be like to throw caution to the wind and metaphorically set sail, leaving the safe harbour behind and chancing to the wind to explore and discover. Our cycle trip has scratched that itch for me and left me feeling simultaneously sated and happy to be where I am. It doesn’t mean I would never want to set out again, but I am happy for now to just enjoy the moment. I remember writing something before the trip about squeezing every last drop of juice from life but the trip has taught me that you don’t necessarily have to be pedalling thousands of miles to do that. I would love to go off again to find new adventure but I don’t have the same sense of urgency that used to gnaw at me. Standing on the start line of a 4,500 mile bike ride is daunting and magnificent, as is looking back at it after two years, but the reality is that the journey itself is no different from any other part of life and the trick is to recognise the value of now and exploit it for everything it is worth.

I’m looking forward to hosting Adrianne and to sharing her excitement at the very beginning of her journey. I’m looking forward to following her adventure along with Quintin’s, Sean’s and Elise’s and enjoying their experiences as they push themselves to new heights. The difference now is that I won’t be jealous of them because I don’t need to imagine what they are going through, I know.

Holy stones and dancing pigeons

I am conscious of my lack of blogging just recently but there are mitigating circumstances. The combination of starting a new job, travelling the length and breadth of England visiting family and not to mention the stress of trying to outwit a fat pigeon have just left no time for writing I’m afraid. They are feeble excuses I know; the job is only three days a week, the family visits did, in practice, leave me with time on my hands on occasions and the battle of wits between me and the pigeon is largely won for the time being so it’s high time I started writing again.

This was before I made him mad.

This was before I made him mad.

If you haven’t already worked it out from my social media posts, my new job is that of, “Wildlife Supporter Officer” working at Brockholes nature reserve for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Unlike the Ronseal tin, the job title doesn’t really reveal very much, but in essence I try to persuade people to become supporters of the Trust by engaging them in fascinating and witty conversation about wildlife and why we need to protect it. The visitors are intriguing, ranging from very serious bird watchers who are so well camouflaged that I don’t usually notice them unless they move, through to courting couples that have absolutely no idea why they are at the nature reserve other than it seemed like a nice romantic backdrop to a first date. What makes the job so interesting is that it turns out that the hipster and his vertiginously heeled beauty are just as likely to be interested in the charity as the telephoto toting twitchers, once you get into conversation with them. They all seem to be really lovely people including most of the children. I say most of the children because the one that told me his idea of a fun day out would be to hunt down everything that moves with a high-powered rifle and kill it was probably beyond even my powers of persuasion. The rest of the little darlings are lovely though and we have all sorts of fun engaging in earnest conversations, mostly about badges, stickers and dinosaurs but occasionally also about wildlife. I have also discovered that my owl impersonation is a real ice breaker with four-year olds.

It’s early days but I am gradually building up my knowledge of the nature reserves across the region so that I can enthuse about the best location for observing the buff tailed bumble bee or explain which varieties of native newts are to be found amongst the courting couples in the St. Annes sand dunes. There is a lot to learn it seems. I still can’t see any difference between the Black Headed gulls and the Mediterranean ones and most days when I get home I have to turn to Google to find out if some wag of a naturalist has been pulling my leg or not. (It turns out that there is a partridge with red legs actually. It’s called a Red Legged Partridge.)

Despite the ridiculous number of miles we had to drive on the motorways to get around the family we did manage to squeeze a few lovely walks into our grand tour and I am more than pleased that both of our grown up boys and their partners are not averse to a stroll in the countryside. Something must have rubbed off on them somewhere along the lines. It was an amazing example of how easy it is to find yourself a bit of peace and quiet and to connect with nature no matter where you live. A Somerset canal, a Dorset beach and a Hampshire water park all proved to be delightful places for a bit of casual bird watching and, in the case of the beach, the discovery of some really intriguing stones with holes in them. A little research revealed that the holes are made by Piddocks, a bi-valve mollusc that literally eats its way into the rock to create a home. I picked up a couple of them and they are proving to be a great hit with the kids when I’m working. You can’t beat a rock eating mussel to create a bit of interest.

Holy stones

Holy stones

And so, the pigeon. As you know we have been feeding an ever increasing variety of birds (you can add chaffinch to the list now) from our bird feeding station as it is grandly called and it’s all been a huge success apart from the pigeons. Well it’s been a huge success for the pigeons from their point of view because for them it’s like a free Michelin star restaurant has opened up in town. The problem is we can’t afford their appetites so something had to be done. Ten minutes work with a wire coat hanger and our bird feed station food tray, the one that contains the avian equivalent of a three course gourmet dinner, is finally pigeon proof. Don’t be alarmed, I didn’t stab the pigeons with the coat hanger, I just made a simple cage that prevents them from getting at the food.

My pigeon rattling cage

My pigeon rattling cage

I may have stopped them eating us out of house and home but they, on the other hand, have worked out a very effective revenge. You wouldn’t believe how much noise two dancing pigeons can make on a tin roof at four o’clock in the morning! I’m on the case though; I’m making them a pair of slippers each next.

 

Wildlife on wheels

Bit of a dearth of blogging lately I know, my only excuse is starting work and spending all my spare time trying to stop the big fat pigeon from eating all the food we put out in about thirty seconds. There will be more on that and my new job in another post soon.

In the mean time I have been guest blogging for the Wildlife Trust junior web pages on the joys of combining cycle touring with watching wildlife. The result is over here: http://wildlifewatch.org.uk/wildlife-cycling I hope you like it.

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Are you sitting comfortably?

Are you sitting comfortably?

The sun is streaming in through the lounge window and the sky is an unbroken summertime blue. It looks like a beautifully warm spring day and yet when you step outside it’s hard to believe how cool it is. It might be disappointing to discover that winter hasn’t quite lost its grasp but it reminds me that we need contrasts like warm and cold or winter and summer, to make sense of the world.

The news is full of horror stories about war, economic crisis and climate change while social media is awash with tales of human endeavour, extraordinary acts of kindness and a genuine feeling of people fighting back against social injustice. The world seems to be full of differences that conflict with each other but we need both halves of the picture to form a whole. There is no good without evil, no kindness without self-interest and no reward without sacrifice. On a personal note everything seems to be falling into place; we love our new home, I have found a job I really want to do and we have exciting long term plans that look more feasible with each passing month. So why do I have this nagging feeling that something isn’t right? It must be something to do with that old chestnut, the comfort zone and how it can sometimes make us feel strangely uncomfortable.

Life is all about contrasts; it’s the way that we measure things, one against the other. From something as simple as flopping into a comfy armchair after hours standing on your feet to stepping out into the unknown from a cosy secure lifestyle, it is the difference between the two sensations that enable us to measure them and it’s the difference that creates the experience.

Gill and I couldn’t be more in the comfort zone right now. No financial worries, a simple but comfortable home, good friends, a happy marriage, good health, what more could anybody want? I’m enjoying the option to simply wallow in comfort for now but I know it won’t last. There will come a time when I have nothing to contrast the safe and cosy lifestyle against other than the fading memories of another very different one from two years ago. We do this quantifying thing on many levels from the micro, shifting in a chair to get more comfortable and saying, “Ooh, that’s better”, to the macro; moving house, changing jobs or packing our world into a few bags and taking off travelling. We are doing it all the time at one level or another, it’s our way of ‘tasting’ the world.

Sometimes life deals us a blow that turns our comfortable world upside down and reminds us to appreciate what we have. Of course nobody actually wants to lose their job suddenly or suffer an unexpected illness or accident but in the aftermath of these awful experiences people often talk of the positives that can come out of them. These things may be out of our control but they are another way that we can see and measure one part of our lives against another. Like it or not, I think we need these upheavals now and again to stem the rot of stagnation. Obviously though, it is so much better if we can create the disruptions of our own accord, and in a good way, rather than through some terrible misfortune.

Alastair Humphreys published a book called, Micro Adventures, all about fitting short exciting experiences into busy lives when ‘packing it all in and taking off’ just isn’t an option. (That’s covered by his new book, Grand Adventures.) He advocates such things as climbing a hill after work and sleeping out under the stars in sharp contrast to the normal pattern of commute home, have tea, watch telly, go to bed, repeat. The thing about doing something a little bit crazy and maybe uncomfortable like this is that it can actually make the tea, telly, bed thing quite appealing. Contrast; it’s all about contrast.

I like Alastair’s idea of the micro and the grand adventures but I would quibble over the exact terminology. I would suggest that his micro adventures would be better described as mini ones and the term micro could then be reserved for the really tiny but important things like watching the stars rather than the telly or getting up early to see the sunrise.

Worth getting up early for

Worth getting up early for

I would like to think that the next few years of our lives, assuming we can predict anything of course, will be cosy and comfortable but I also know that it won’t be enough. It’s going to take a whole load of micro adventures and a fair number of mini ones if comfortable is going to remain satisfying. Maybe there is a lot more to the phrase, “make yourself comfortable”, than you might at first think. I think that it is something that we have to work at constantly and it never comes alone. There is no such thing as comfortable without uncomfortable.

Somewhere between all these contrasts and differences there lies a rich vein of reward that is just waiting to be tapped.