Dawn at Brockholes Nature Reserve

After a half hour drive on nearly deserted city roads the initial shock of a 3am start is beginning to wear off. As we put on our boots and gather up camera and binoculars the light of the full moon is competing with the glow of the unrisen sun to create a half light and the sounds of the birdsong are clearly audible above the noise of the nearby motorway. It’s a short walk along one of the reserve paths to check on the nesting great crested grebe sitting stoically in the cold on her semi-submerged platform. Dedication personified. From here we enter the woodlands and as the sounds of nature take over from those of the grinding wheels of commerce we are, in turn, transported to another world. One of natural tranquillity and rich earthy smells emanating from the abundant woodland floor.

We can pick out the repetitive but beautiful call of a song thrush and just about make out its silhouette, perched on a nearby sapling and as we watch a subtle movement catches Gill’s eye. She calls out, quietly, deer! There are two young female roe deer just twenty yards from us. All four of us have stopped in our tracks and we stare at each other waiting for somebody to make a move. After a couple of breath taking minutes the deer decide we are far enough away not to pose any immediate threat and they melt quietly into the undergrowth. Jumping over fallen branches soundlessly and seemingly without effort they make their way through the familiar terrain as we clomp clumsily on along the path in our heavy boots, like aliens in a foreign world.

It’s still too dark in the woods for bird watching but we have fun trying to identify the numerous calls and songs. The familiar wren is ever present with its strikingly loud song that nearly always incorporates a giveaway trill mid call. It’s a wonder that such a tiny creature can create such a powerful cacophony? At less than a quarter of their size it drowns out the blackbirds and song thrushes it shares this place with and seems to shout out its territorial demands with an unlikely authority.

As we leave this enchanted place the sun is threatening to rise over the river, opposite the still bright moon which glows pale and surreal through the high branches of the trees.

Setting moon

It’s cold, very cold and despite the promise of a warm spring day later on; we are glad of hats and gloves as the faintest of breezes wafts the chilled air off the waters of the Ribble. The river is busy with black headed gulls, oyster catchers and the odd redshank. Herons are already standing sentinel, looking for their first fish or eel but the sand martins that occupy the riverbank mud walls are nowhere to be seen. I’m thinking that it’s probably too early but just as that thought crosses my mind the first ones appear swooping and darting above the river, leaving their nest holes to feed on the early flies.

Chilled bird watcher

A fiery red crescent is growing out of the distant skyline giving the impression that the eastern horizon is being engulfed by a terrible inferno.

Here comes the sun

I can’t wait to feel the first warm rays on my back as we turn away from the water and make our way towards the car park area where it’s very likely we will be able to spot one of my favourite mammals. We climb quietly up the river bank and peer, commando style, over the top of the rise and sure enough there are two brown hares cavorting on one of the paths just close by. They pick up our scent immediately and retreat to a safer distance but not before we catch a tantalisingly brief view of their antics. They are spotted on the reserve at all times of the day but if you want to be sure of a good sighting it’s best to come early.

Brown hare in car park. Photo by Emma Jayne Sharples

By now the odd car is arriving on the reserve. We are not alone any more and the feeling that we are somehow privy to a wonderful secret is slipping away. It’s time for something to eat and a brisk walk to restore some warmth to chilled fingers and toes. Our visit isn’t over but the main objective of experiencing the new day is. We have shared something very special that only a dawn walk can provide. There is a real sense of adventure about starting out in the dark and a wonderful reward in watching the birth of a new day at this spectacular time of year. Was it worth setting the alarm for three in the morning? What do you think?

Early morning light

Long Tailed Tits and narrow waisted trousers

The problem with being of slim build is that there is nowhere to hide an ever expanding waistline. I’m currently shaped like one of those fishing floats that are long and thin with a large bulge in the middle. It took a wedding in the autumn to force me to pull my head out of the sand when I realised that none of my trousers that were remotely suitable for such an occasion could actually be buttoned around my waist. Two months on and I am finally getting round to doing something about it.

Now that I am able to walk a reasonable distance again without any significant pain there is no excuse so it was out again this morning for my regular two mile march around the streets and into the countryside as the sun struggled to get out of bed. The route I took today is about fifty percent main road, thirty percent housing estate and twenty percent country lane. It’s fine for getting a little bit of exercise but not brilliant for scenery or bird watching so I don’t usually bother to take a camera or binoculars. It’s more a case of head down and quick march while I mentally run through my wardrobe of narrow waisted trousers and try to summon up the purpose to walk faster and harder. This morning was different though and an abject lesson in stopping to smell the metaphorical roses and regret leaving the binoculars at home.

For a start it was cold but blissfully calm after several days of windy weather and the sky was magically lit by a reluctant winter sun. We may have turned the seasonal corner now that we have passed the solstice but the sun is like a sulky teenager at this time of year. It unenthusiastically peers over the horizon and attempts to perform its daily duties whilst barely leaving its bed. It doesn’t get up any earlier either for the next few weeks; it just goes to bed a bit later but those extra few minutes of daylight are already filling me with anticipation of what is round the corner. There were other early signs of a change too; a Robin and a Dunnock were singing enthusiastically as if nobody had mentioned to them that spring is still a good few months away.

What a cutie. The Long Tailed Tit. (Photo by Craig Smith)

Along the short stretch of country lane a Long Tailed Tit caught my eye as it flew into the bushes next to me and as I looked around for more (they usually come in small flocks) my eye was caught by the frenetic and constant movement of a pair of Gold Crests.

The Gold Crest. (Photo by Tairi and uve Pixdaus.com)

These are stunning little birds with their brilliant black and yellow head stripe and they are a joy to watch as they acrobatically search for small grubs and eggs in the nooks and crannies of trees and shrubs. They are constantly on the move prompting the question of whether they might not need quite so much food if they ever sat still for a minute or two. They are actually quite common, similar in winter numbers to Robins but being Britain’s smallest bird and rarely appearing out in the open, lots of people have never seen one. The final birdy treat was provided by a Blue Tit that flew past my face so close that I actually heard its wing beats.

The last stretch of the walk is through a housing estate and back to the main road. It didn’t mean there was nothing to see though. Starlings, Blackbirds, Gulls and a flock of Gold Finches all added colour and sound to the otherwise dull scenery while the sky continued to flaunt its silvery winter splendour.

Winter sky and a chance to find out where the birds nest.

Oh and I nearly forgot; I saw sixty seven pigeons as well.

As I walked the final stretch to home my thoughts turned back to those frantically busy Gold Crests and I realised where I might be going wrong. I’ve never seen an overweight Gold Crest you see and come to think of it; I’ve never seen one slumped in a chair drinking beer either. I’m not planning to start doing acrobatics in the bushes but maybe less beer and more walking might go some way to alleviating the problem of a wardrobe full of trousers that don’t fit me.

Eva’s 100 miles for Mommy

Some things are very difficult to understand. I’m OK with basic chemistry, atoms and electrons but I start to lose it when it comes to black holes, quarks and as for Higgs boson, well I don’t like to think about it because it makes my head hurt. But all of these things pale in their complexity when compared to trying to understand happiness.

I’ve been pondering the whole subject of happy over the last couple of days prompted by an incredible event that I was lucky enough to be a small part of. It was an event that spurned huge amounts of happiness but also a fair amount of sadness too and it put them together in a blender and produced something that was very difficult to pin down and explain but I’m going to try anyway.

A whole lot of happiness

A whole lot of happiness

The event that I am referring to was a multi-day sponsored bike ride around the Fylde which in itself is nothing remarkable until you consider that the leader of the ride was just seven years old and the distance covered over the five days was a shade over one hundred miles! As is so often in these cases the background to this amazing achievement is a tragic one which is where all the sadness I referred to came from. Eva, our ride leader, lost her Mommy to cancer last year and she told her Dad that she wanted to do something really special in memory of her. Her Dad Gareth and his daughter are both keen cyclists so a bike ride of some kind was probably inevitable but nobody expected Eva to opt for such an ambitious challenge. After five days of riding the journey ended in a celebration at the local cricket club but it was a celebration tinged with pain and sadness for many. Eva seemed to take the whole thing in her stride and while many of the adult riders bemoaned their aching muscles and tender backsides at the end of the final day Eva celebrated with a game of football with her chums.

Pround Dad

Proud Dad

I met Gareth, Eva’s Dad, through our shared interests of cycling and writing and as I said goodbye to him yesterday he mentioned that he would like his next blog to be a happier one than some of those in the past and that is what got me really thinking about how we get happy and stay happy. Gareth lost his wife in the most awful circumstances to an extremely aggressive form of cancer and he appears to be doing a truly amazing job of bringing up his two small daughters, Eva and Isla, in what must, at times, feel like a whole sea of despair. You have to wonder what chance happiness has of surviving in such a situation but survive it surely does.

For me, happiness is something that comes in moments rather than continuously or permanently because it is something that requires a whole host of elements to be present at the same time. Contentment, security, friends, love, humour, comfort and many more components all have to be present to make us feel truly happy and when you take any one of them away the danger is that the happy bubble bursts. Take one away and replace it with grief and happiness is always going to struggle. Well that is what I thought until my experience over the last two days watching Eva’s ever smiling face as she pedalled furiously up the steepest of hills and never once complained. There was so much fun and laughter and pure joy during those rides it was as if somebody was building the most magnificent cathedral on what had been a derelict bomb site.

Happiness really is such a slippery thing to get to grips with. I sometimes think that it is something that we can share. Being with happy people is infectious like laughter or smiling so that presumes that only really happy people can share it out. Maybe we have to share it out to enjoy it. It’s all very well having a whole birthday cake to yourself but at some point it will make you sick if you don’t share it with others. So here is the real dilemma for me; Gareth and his lovely little girls have every reason to be a bit low on the happiness stakes and yet they seem to have been able to share enormous quantities of it and make dozens, if not hundreds of people very happy. Of course their terrible loss forces us look at ourselves and realise how fortunate we are to have the friends and loved ones that we do but it also gives us hope. It shows us that even the most desperate, desolate bomb site can one day become the foundation for a new and beautiful garden of flowers.

The inspirational Eva

The inspirational Eva

There has been a deluge of heart felt messages on social media today congratulating Gareth and Eva for what they have achieved. Most of them refer to the huge amount of money that has been raised, and the incredible achievement of a seven year old riding a hundred miles in five days. I will second all of those thoughts but I also want to add a great big thank you to Gareth and Eva for the sheer volume of happiness that they have managed to create in the world. That happiness will spread outwards just like ripples in a pond and those ripples will eventually bounce back to them. That’s when I hope Gareth will be able to write his happy blog and I for one will look forward to reading it.

You can read more about Eva’s ride on Facebook by clicking this link. Or, just go here to donate.

It’s all a question of balance.

I have a job!

It’s such a great feeling after another depressing period of weekly visits to the Job Centre and mindless applications for jobs I really didn’t want. Being unemployed is like being adrift in a boat without an engine or a rudder. I feel out of control even though I am actively looking for work and the whole job seeking and benefit claiming experience fills me with despair. There comes a point when getting any job at all would be a huge relief so the fact that I have found one that I actually want to do is a massive bonus. But what makes me happiest of all is my working week.

I’m going to be working in a stunning outdoor setting, surrounded by wildlife and talking to like-minded people about a charity that I really believe in.

Not a bad place to work

Not a bad place to work

The job itself is exactly what I was looking for but even better, I will be working three shifts per week, just what I wanted. I think this is what is meant by a plan coming together.

I know that not everybody is in a position to work just three days a week, so I do appreciate how lucky I am, but on the other hand this is just what Gill and I have been working so hard to achieve over the last few years and now we are finally where we want to be; both working less than half of each week and both doing something that we enjoy and that we believe is worthwhile.

You hear a lot of talk about getting the work, life balance right these days but I don’t think it’s that simple in reality. We are not just trying to balance work days and leisure days; we are also considering finances, work patterns, time together and time for ourselves. It’s more complex than a simple balancing act and scales just don’t represent the problem. It’s really about getting the mix right rather than a simple balancing act and right now I think we are as close as we can get to success. No doubt circumstances out of our control will be along to spoil the party sooner or later but then that’s the challenge. To add another element into the mix, stir it all up and find a new solution that works is half the fun but for now we are happy to make the most of the steady state that we find ourselves in.

This steady state is precisely what we need right now. It’s a bit like the shelter of a port after the thrill of a challenging voyage. It’s exactly what I feel we need to contemplate where we have been over the last few years and to consider what comes next. It’s ironic that having worked so hard to get to this safe harbour, it turns out to be the perfect place from which to plan an escape.

Perhaps there is a balance in all this after all. On the one side of the scales, the heavy side, we have our current position of stability; steady work, financial security and a permanent home. The empty pan is where the next adventure will be incubated. Conversations, memories, maps and stories will all be added to the scales until a tipping point is reached and a new idea will be born. We have no idea what, or when, that will be but we just feel that it is inevitable. I think we are both happy to sit back and relish a bit of constancy for now and to take some time to relax, to take stock and maybe to dream a little.

At last I have my focus.

Maybe more for me than for you, I feel compelled to place a full stop in this blog. A marker to move forward from after a fair bit of reflection on my part. I should warn you that it isn’t funny.

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At last I have my focus! After spending the last twelve months and more thrashing around trying to work out what the hell this blog is supposed to be about I finally have some answers. I have been reading advice from other bloggers and focus seems to be the one requirement of a good blog that everybody agrees on. Now, after giving it a lot of thought, I am finally making some sense out of what it is I want to write about.

It really is so very simple and it’s been staring me in the face all along. The blog started as an account of a life changing adventure when we decided to sell everything, give up our jobs and take off on a six month 4,500 mile cycle tour round the coast of Britain. But that was only how the blog began, not our story. This story really started several years earlier when we had one of those; late-night, second-bottle-of- wine, what’s-it-all-about type of conversations that ended with an agreement that we should never settle for the mundane and never stop questioning the way we live.

We have been focussed on those ideas ever since and that, of course, is what the blog is about. I may have gone off on some pretty wacky tangents at times but when I look back on all the posts and consider what I want to write about in the future it’s the same topic as that which forms a fundamental thread running through our lives.

I don’t think we ever had a road to Damascus moment but we have gradually moved from a focus on jobs, money and possessions to one that centres on free time, new experiences and living a simple life. It’s all about needing less rather than earning more. All the big events and decisions in the last few years have revolved around this including the bike ride, although we probably didn’t realise it at the time. The move to part-time, low paid work, and the recent purchase of the mobile park home are further steps along the way. There is a narrow boat somewhere on the horizon but that’s still a dream at the moment. Each event has led to less stuff, less space and a lot less money. It has also given us a huge sense of freedom and flexibility. It feels a bit like the first day of our big bike ride when tears rolled down my face as we rode the first few miles and I contemplated the scale of what lay ahead. The unknown emptiness of the next six months was exhilarating, like a long dark night just waiting to be filled with sweet dreams. (Ironically, it may well be possible to achieve a similar sensation by having unlimited money but that option was never coming our way.)

The blog is my attempt to provide some insight into what our chosen route involves. We don’t have a manual entitled “Nirvana in six easy steps- the simple life” though I expect there may well be one. We have no idea whether what we are doing is the answer but it’s an option. It’s not about knowing the answers anyway; it’s more about having endless questions. What if? Could we? Should we? We are just attempting to answer the questions rather than letting them hang in the air. It’s about not getting to the end of the journey still wondering what would have happened if we had taken that fork in the road.

A simple life

A simple life

So there is the focus for this blog. It’s about our journey trying to make the most of whatever time we have left. Just like everybody else I suppose. We’re not trying to say it’s the right way. It’s just our way.

Budgie breeder, just for Dane

Somebody commented on here the other day that they liked the randomness of my posts since I stopped writing about cycling. Well this one is for you Dane.

I used to breed budgerigars. It was a long time ago now and I have no idea what brought it back to my mind during this morning’s walk. I certainly didn’t see any exotic bird life and I didn’t make it as far as the recently opened pet shop in the village but something brought back the cut and thrust of the budgie breeding world so I thought I would write about it.

I think I was about fourteen at the time that we went to visit my Dad’s brother, Uncle Ted, in Dalton. When you are fourteen visits to relatives aren’t at the top of your bucket list so I was probably being a sulky teenager on the long journey from St. Anne’s all around the expansive Morecambe Bay and without the aid of the M6 to provide any excitement. I suspect I spent the whole journey dreaming of Claire Boon, the most beautiful creature ever to grace the top deck of a number eleven bus but that’s a story for another day.

We already had a budgie in our house. He was called Peter and his party trick was to pick up coins from the mantel piece and drop them onto the hearth because he seemed to like the noise they made. It was an amusing trick but it didn’t require a great deal of intellect and indeed, he didn’t have any. He once spent a good hour transferring about three pounds worth of small change from the dining table to the carpeted floor of the lounge completed baffled by the absence of his favourite jingle. He could barely hold his head up by the end of the exercise but he was nothing if not persistent. And endlessly optimistic. I thought it was cool to own a budgie, well, probably not cool back then, more likely neat or ace. Yes I think it was ace, but when I got to my Uncle’s house he took things to another level.

This is not Peter

This is not Peter

In his back garden he had not one, but dozens, maybe even hundreds of budgerigars in aviaries. They were all the colours of the rainbow (apart from orange, red and purple) and they fascinated me as they flew around their enclosures and jostled with each other on perches, sometimes fighting and sometimes flirting. I was allowed to go into one of the aviaries and even given a bird to hold and shown newly laid eggs and hatchlings. I was hooked.

Over the next few weeks I pestered and pestered to be allowed to become a budgie breeder and in the end, no doubt for the sake of a bit of peace, I was given the green light. My Dad was a joiner and it didn’t take him long to knock up the necessary accommodation for a pair of besotted blues and I was in business. I was genuinely enthusiastic and tended their every need before and after school until one happy day they produced a family. It probably taught me more about biology than Mr. Hodges ever did and I exhausted the local library’s budgie section in my thirst for knowledge. Before long we required an aviary too and what had been my Dad’s sanctuary, his shed, became a feather infested smelly den requiring endless cleaning and constant attention as the breeding program went exponential.

That’s when I lost interest and left it all to my Dad. I think, by then, I had mustered up the courage to actually speak to Clair Boon and really there was just no competition I’m afraid. To be fair to my Dad he really got stuck into it and even won a few prizes at local shows. I have always felt really guilty about the way I got him into breeding budgies at the expense of his beloved shed while I moved on to breeding ambitions of another kind. Not complaining about it was probably as clear a declaration of fatherly love as you could ever imagine.

The whole episode in my life is all terribly vague now. It’s like a kind of Eton Mess of memories involving seeds, feathers, eggs and poo, and, if I’m really honest, probably knickers and bra straps as well. I did learn a few things though and they have stuck with me all my life. I can tell a male and female budgerigar apart without lifting up any skirts or dropping any trousers and I still remember the difference between a Lutino and an Albino. I also learnt what it feels like to get dumped by the most gorgeous girl that ever rode the number eleven bus and then realise that you have lost your budgies into the bargain.

Spot the difference

Spot the difference

 

Seven days, seven blogs. What have I started?

If you have been reading the blog again this week then you can skip this post. It’s a bit of a repeat of the first one of the year but I’ve had a change of heart and my confidence is returning, mostly thanks to some of you readers, so here is another attempt at explaining where I am.

I was really disappointed with myself for letting the blog fall by the wayside in 2015 so I thought I would start this year off with a bit of a challenge and try and get back into the swing of it. I decided not to do the #dryjanuary challenge that I did last year but it’s always nice to start things off with a bit of a test so I have promised myself I will try and write every day and actually publish what I write. The hardest part about the challenge by far is thinking up topics to write about and then being brave enough to hit the publish button. For this reason I have kept a bit of a low profile for the first week and only people that have either kept their subscription to the blog or stumbled on it by accident will have been aware of the first seven posts. I am very relieved and incredibly grateful to have received some lovely encouraging comments over the last few days though, so I’m afraid you’re stuck with me now. I’ll try and keep a daily post going throughout January and see if it becomes a habit.

As it happens it’s been quite an eventful week to start the year and I haven’t actually found it too difficult to find things to write about. From the prospect of possibly going blind in one eye to a death in the family and a visit from my sister I have ended up with a kind of pick ‘n mix counter of subject material which has been great. I haven’t even touched on learning to fly a drone yet. Well, when I say fly, it’s more a case of launching the thing into the air and then seeing which piece of furniture or potted plant it will destroy next. (The spider plant is looking very neat at the moment.) It’s great having interesting or amusing subjects to cover but what I would really like to crack is making the writing speak for itself rather than relying on the story. That’s the challenge that really fires me up. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than reading something and realising that it is actually the writing that I am enjoying as much as or even more than the subject matter.

I am conscious of the fact that this blog started life as an account of a cycle adventure and I know lots of people who followed that story have got bored and gone away now but I make no apologies for that. I’m sure I will touch on cycling again once we get back on the bikes but for now this blog is my play thing. It’s a chance to play with words and phrases and to try and be creative. To try to turn jumbled thoughts into understandable ideas, to paint pictures that convey feelings and emotions or just to tell a story in a way that might amuse the reader. I would like to be able to promise that everything I write will be funny, incisive, entertaining and meaningful but it’s very unlikely to be a promise I could keep. What I can promise is that I will enjoy the writing and if a few people enjoy the reading then I’ll be happy.

Here’s a nice picture just to say thanks for sticking with me this far.

You can't beat a rainbow over the sea

You can’t beat a rainbow over the sea

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