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.



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.

What’s in a name?

Sometimes it’s tricky deciding what to call something.

What's this?

What’s this?

A dead one of these!

A dead one of these!

“A building for human habitation, especially one that consists of a ground floor and one or more upper storeys”

This is the dictionary definition of a house. Our new place of habitation doesn’t have any upper storeys so I guess it isn’t a house. It’s not a bungalow either. So if we don’t live in a house or a bungalow, a flat or a maisonette, what do we live in? What do we call our new home?

The problem started as soon as we began negotiations with the vendors and it’s still going on now three months after we moved in. Obviously you don’t buy a new home without constantly referring to it and we quickly found that we didn’t actually know what to call the thing we were buying. I don’t mean we were struggling to choose between ‘Dunroamin’ or ‘Att-om-ere’, I mean we just kept using different ways of describing it. Park home, Mobile home, Caravan, Static Van, Unit; we tried them all out but they all felt a bit awkward. We are not alone in this either. When people come to visit for the first time they are genuinely complimentary but they always seem to stumble when reaching for the correct descriptive noun. “It’s bigger than I thought”, they say, “I’ve never actually been inside ‘one of them’ before”. That’s the giveaway isn’t it? “One of them”. There is something about that phrase that says, “Well it’s not a house is it?”

It's mobile but it isn't going anywhere.

It’s mobile but it isn’t going anywhere.

I think I have worked out what is going on here now. Everybody is really supposed to live in a house aren’t they? We all have this pre-conceived idea of ‘the family’, ‘the home’, ‘the job’ etc. and if we are confronted by anything that breaks the mould in any way it makes us a bit uncomfortable. You hear phrases like; “Oh they’re not married”, or “They work from home” suggesting that ‘they’ are actually not quite normal.  Perhaps that is why we are all struggling with what to call the place where we live now. No matter how you dress it up it’s not a house in a conventional sense and in reality it’s a plywood box sitting on a steel chassis with a fake tiled roof made out of aluminium. By any stretch of the imagination that is not a conventional house as described by the dictionary. Of course no friend wants to describe it like that for fear of being rude but the plain truth is; Park Home, Mobile Home, Caravan, Static Van and Unit all describe it much better than ‘house’ does. This is why we all keep stumbling when we grasp for the right name to use. I have experimented with referring to it as a house from time to time but it just doesn’t sound right. Calling it a house won’t magically make it sprout another storey and it feels phoney. A bit like the well-dressed lady in Lidl’s who answered her mobile phone and announced to the caller, “Oh I’m just doing a bit of shopping in Sainsbury’s”. Who does she think she is kidding? (That’s a true story by the way; thank you Elaine.)

The official UK government website has settled on Park (mobile) Home, thus hedging its bets by putting the potentially offensive word in brackets. Use of the word mobile is a bit misleading anyway. It’s got nothing to do with the thing having wheels or being towable, it’s doesn’t and it isn’t. The mobile word refers to the fact that in theory at least, we could, should we choose, load our house onto the back of a big lorry and take it somewhere else. In that sense it is mobile. In reality these things rarely move anywhere unless it’s really, really windy.

I suppose it’s fitting really that if you choose to live somewhere a bit quirky and unconventional then it follows that it might be a bit tricky to refer to it without mortally offending the owners. Just for the record I should point out that we really don’t care what people call it. To us it’s just home and you can call it anything you like but “Gill and Tony’s place” sounds quite nice. It’s going to be a whole lot easier if we stick to our plan of buying a narrow boat at some point in the future. At least that is what it says it is; nothing more, nothing less.

Shopping smarter, the BBC way.

There was an interesting program on the BBC last night. It wasn’t completely original, I saw something similar last year but I am intrigued by the message it is giving out at prime time and the assumption that there is sufficient interest in the subject. It was titled, ‘Shop well for less’, but I don’t think that title tells the whole story of what it was about.

The basic premise, if you didn’t see it, or can’t be bothered catching it here, was to take a family that shop really badly and consequently overspend, throw in a bathroom project in their house that has been unfinished for years because they are short of cash and show them how much they could save by shopping smarter. I’m not here to comment on the detailed content or quality of the program but I am very interested in what it had to say.

I suppose there are several ways of viewing this kind of show; you could see it as a useful educational tool that explains the value of shopping more thoughtfully and questioning not just how much you buy but also what brands and whether or not you are getting value for money. On the other hand, you could view it as an anti-consumerism message and thus part of a small historic movement that has always questioned the whole concept of acquiring stuff simply because we can.

On a different level again you could say the program was encouraging us to fight back against the fierce onslaught of the advertising industry. There was an element of blind testing revealing that top brands aren’t always the best value and neither is price an indicator of quality in all cases. To the producer’s credit they also acknowledged that sometimes paying more for quality works out cheaper in the long run.

The biggest unanswered question that it left in my mind though, was would such a program have any impact? I doubt it myself. The program lasted an hour and during that time it appealed to people to think before buying and to question the claims of advertisers. In the same period, on a multitude of commercial channels, tens if not hundreds of hours of advertisements were broadcast. Millions of sales e-mails were dispatched and in the same time thousands of minds were dreaming up new ways of convincing us to buy things that we may, or may not, need. Then there are the magazines we read, the bill boards that assault our senses every day and the mountains of junk mail that pile up behind our doors. All this verses a one hour TV program; it’s hardly a fair competition is it?

I do believe there might be a glimmer of hope in all this though. The fact that it isn’t the first program of its kind is encouraging, but more important still, is the time that it was broadcast and its position on a major channel like BBC1. The cynic in me believes that its main appeal might be in its voyeuristic intrusion into another family’s life so that we can all enjoy gasping with incredulity at the stupidity of the mum and dad that go out to buy winter coats for their boys and come home with bedding and clothes for themselves and the children but not the coats that they went for. Having said that, it was pretty hard hitting when it came to advertising and there were some strong messages about buying what we actually need rather than what the marketing gurus tell us we need. It’s not going to bring about the death of consumerism or drag the advertising industry to its knees overnight but it’s an encouraging step towards questioning the whole crazy business of what we buy and why we do it. There are plenty of examples of consumers winning victories over suppliers and turning the tables on who is in control of what we buy. In the 1970’s the large UK breweries were determined to phase out unprofitable and unpredictable real ale in favour of cheap-to-produce and stable keg beers. The Campaign for Real Ale was formed to combat this move and by people power alone they reversed the strategy of the suppliers completely. It is now almost impossible to find a pub in the UK that doesn’t serve real ale. Admittedly what we are talking about here is different; this isn’t just a suggestion that people should choose to buy a different product but that they actually refrain from buying a lot of things completely. That’s a much bigger ask, I agree.

Most people I talk to understand that unrestrained consumption, by an ever increasing population, on a planet of finite resources doesn’t add up. I am hoping that a program like this, being broadcast on a mainstream channel and at prime time is an indicator that challenging thoughtless consumerism isn’t quite as off the wall as it used to be. It’s only a very faint glimmer of hope but it’s better than total darkness.

Buy one get one free. If only that was an option

Buy one planet, get one free. If only that was an option


I don’t know what I was thinking of …..

I’ve been attempting daily meditation. Like most of the good habits I try to form this one is sporadic to say the least. I first tried a couple of years ago and worked my way up from five to fifteen minutes over the course of about a month. Then I stopped. A few weeks ago I tried again and this time I just jumped straight in at the fifteen minute point like a fearless black belt meditator. Then I stopped again. Today I started yet again and since it’s still today and I may meditate tomorrow I suppose technically I can say I am meditating again. Well at least until I stop.

I have absolutely no idea what I am doing of course. I’ve read a few articles about it and listened to the odd practitioner on the radio over the years so I know a little of the theory of meditation but it’s not like learning to do something tangible like juggling. (I’ve lost count of the number of times I have embarked on a routine of ten minutes juggling every day but that never lasts either). The thing with juggling, unlike meditation, is that it’s fairly easy to know if you are doing it right or not. Generally speaking if the balls are in the air then you are juggling, if they are on the floor then you’re not. It’s quite straight forward. With meditation it’s just not that clear-cut is it? Most of the time I don’t actually know if I am meditating or not.

This is me juggling

This is me not juggling

As far as I understand it you are supposed to think of nothing, or not think at all, you see I’m already confused. Some say you should concentrate on your breathing, others say to focus on how you feel and your location in the room (mindfulness meditation). Forgive me, but that sounds a bit like thinking to me. And isn’t not thinking, sleeping anyway?

My own technique is to focus on my slow breathing and if a thought pops into my head to try and let it pop out again just as quickly. Sometimes I end up thinking about thoughts that are about to pop into my head and how I can keep them out and at some point in every session I think about how much longer there is to go before I can start thinking again. In other words, I have a long way to go before I achieve fifteen minutes of uninterrupted nirvana. I usually meditate with my eyes shut and one thing that I have noticed is that the colour behind my eyelids is like a slowly moving lava field that is repeatedly obscured by a darker colour that washes in like the tide over a sandy shore. It’s very calming and pleasant but I do sometimes wonder if it’s a product of my age and it’s actually just a hangover from being brought up in the era of the lava lamp.

It’s not a complete disaster. I do feel very relaxed at the end of a session and there is usually a moment, generally in the final five minutes I estimate, when I drift off somewhere. I suddenly become aware that I have no recollection of the previous moments, a bit like when you are driving and you realise to your horror that you can’t recall the last couple of miles. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t fallen asleep , (during the meditation I mean, not the driving) because I haven’t dribbled or fallen off the chair or anything so maybe I have actually meditated. It’s also impossible to know if these moments last for a second or two or a few minutes. Presumably, if I was a really good meditator they would last for fifteen minutes. All joking aside though, those few moments when I seem to get it right make me think that there probably is something worthwhile in this business and I really should persevere. I once read that twenty minutes effective meditation is as valuable as a good night’s sleep. Or did I dream that?

I am going to keep trying because if nothing else I have never heard of anybody saying that they meditate every day and it’s a waste of time. On the contrary all practitioners seem to agree that it benefits them in lots of ways and serious science seems to concur.

From lowering blood pressure to improving memory and slowing the ageing process, meditation has been credited with endless physical and mental paybacks. Studies using MRI scans have confirmed that a mere eight weeks of regular meditation will bring about real changes to the brain reducing processes associated with stress and boosting those responsible for concentration and decision making. About the only thing that it doesn’t seem to help with in my case, is the ability to form regular good habits; like meditating every day for example, or juggling. Something to ponder perhaps; when I’m not meditating.

Right; I’m off to sit in a darkened room to not think about lava lamps for quarter of an hour.

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.

Gill’s new coat

By way of an attempt to explain the philosophy of our chosen lifestyle I offer you, Gill’s new coat.

Ta daa!

Ta daa!

There are many aspects to what we are trying to achieve with our simple way of life, but one of the components of it is cutting out waste. By that I mean not just wasteful packaging or throwing food away because we fell for that unbelievable value deal in the supermarket, but questioning everything we do and everything we buy and asking ourselves if we are being wasteful. Cutting out short term immediate waste by using less paper towels or switching off lights that aren’t required is obvious and just requires a little bit of willpower and a change in habits. What I call long term waste that takes years to manifest itself is harder to identify but Gill’s new coat is a good example of how we are trying to combat it.

She has had a variety of waterproof coats over the years and we used to go for what I would call reasonable quality at a reasonable price; maybe around £40. They usually last a couple of years before their waterproof qualities are gone and they stop being functional or components like zippers fail. Her new coat cost at least five times more than we are used to paying but per year it should work out cheaper. It is made by a really interesting company who genuinely don’t seem to want you to replace your coat every two or three years. The coat has a lifetime guarantee against faulty materials and workmanship (well workwomanship actually) and when it does wear out they will take it back as a deposit on a new one, promising to either find it a new home or using whatever they can from it to recycle into new materials. I have been following the growth of this company for years and recently I have seen more and more of their products both in the hills and on the high street so word seems to be spreading. They make some great gear but they are also making a real difference too. They are called Paramo and it’s worth looking them up and reading a bit about their philosophy as well as their products. 


Owners of Paramo waterproof jackets often talk in terms of tens of years of life and of sending them back to the manufacturer for new zips to be fitted or damage to be repaired to extend their life even further. I know Paramo is not alone in this attitude to manufacturing and longevity but they are quite rare and I find it very refreshing. Of course it flies in the face of the whole materialism based infrastructure that our economy relies on but they are concrete proof that there really is an alternative way of doing things. So long as you can get used to the idea of wearing the same coat for ten or even twenty years it makes absolute sense. I can almost hear cries of alarm at such an idea but isn’t that exactly where we have gone wrong. We have fostered the idea of buying stuff for the pleasure of buying it, rather than to fulfil a need. We seem to have completely distorted the reason for shopping and turned possessions into a class A drug that will give us a short fix but will always leave us craving more. Gill’s new coat is all about the long term satisfaction that remains long after the buzz of the purchase is over.


I sometimes feel like I am banging a lonely tambourine with this kind of post but then to my delight I saw a link today to an article saying almost exactly what I am thinking. If you are interested in buying less often by buying quality I can heartily recommend this post. I can’t vouch for the web site ‘buymeonceas I haven’t tried it myself and I’m not convinced by everything they are recommending but as a concept I think they are absolutely spot on.

“Less is more” – Robert Browning