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.

StaithesSept05 074

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.

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.

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.

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.

Buying a car, selling a dream

Never has the phrase ‘fish out of water’ been as apt as when used to describe a situation I have found myself in, not once, but twice, in the last two days. The situation in question was that of sitting in a fancy car showroom, opposite a young, enthusiastic, self-confessed petrol head of a salesman, discussing the possibility of buying a new car. We don’t do new cars.

As regular readers of this blog will know Gill and I drove from Gloucester to Lancashire last week sporting a makeshift passenger window fashioned from a plastic bag and a lot of gaffer tape due to the failure of the electric window winding mechanism on our elderly Skoda.

Make us an offer

Make us an offer

The now all too familiar prospect of another expensive visit to the garage prompted a discussion on whether perhaps it was time to consider changing our old car for a slightly less old one as we do from time to time. One thing led to another and I set to work crunching numbers to determine exactly what our current car had cost us over the last three years. The result was shocking and in some ways quite sad. It seems that in this age of interest free credit and a car industry that is desperate to shift new models we have arrived at a situation where it costs the same to buy a brand new car as it does to run a fourteen year old one. Hence the showroom visit but that isn’t what this blog is about.

What this blog is about is how fundamentally similar us humans sometimes turn out to be when we least expect it. As soon as we sat down with our clean cut, young and fashionably bearded adversary, because that is how I saw him at that point, I made it absolutely clear that we were not the kind of punters that sales targets and bonuses were made of. “We aren’t really car people” I announced and his face was a distorted blend of disappointment crossed with determination not to be beaten so easily. He declared himself to be a car person of the first order and we both laughed politely at how much ground we would need to cover to even come close to understanding each other. In a nutshell, we had absolutely nothing in common other than that he wanted to sell a car and we, reluctantly, needed to buy one.

Over the next half hour we batted off gentle attempts to add a few hundred quid here and there for unnecessary extras but as we did so we found ourselves revealing more and more of each other’s soft underbellies. The conversation bounced from metallic paint to some mystical ‘paint protection system’ which cost £300 but guaranteed that the car would remain in dazzlingly pristine showroom condition for as long as we were guardians of it. I had my doubts. Strangely though, in between all the sales guff, we found ourselves telling our new friend about our cycling adventure around the coast of Britain. He in turn revealed that he had a dream to move to Australia and start a new life but his girlfriend’s fears and family ties were holding him back. I explained the dilemma I had felt leaving my aging Mum when we went away.

I voiced my concern about a long financial commitment and a conversation that took place only the other night about jacking it all in again and taking off on another adventure. He asked with a smirk if such a conversation had involved a bottle of wine and we sheepishly confessed that it was two actually. A new common ground seemed to be emerging.

Suddenly we understood each other on a level that went much deeper than his love and our indifference to something as mundane as a car. It no longer felt as if we were in any form of car sales combat with each other. We both knew that really the only conflict lay in ourselves and our constant tug of war between the safe and the exciting. We were going for what would be a boring, safe car in his eyes but I sensed a touch of envy all the same. We had already taken a much bigger plunge than buying an expensive car and knew what it felt like whereas he was still standing on the edge of the diving board wondering. I wanted to tell him that the answer doesn’t come from fast exotic cars, the answer was staring him in the face but I didn’t because I sensed that he was close enough to diving not to need a push. That last step would have to be his and his alone. I still felt slightly uneasy about the new car, like it isn’t really us, but I felt very comfortable to have played a part, no matter how small, in encouraging somebody to take that leap of faith into the unknown. I am very confident that he will recall how it felt to land in Australia on the first day of a new life long after the memory of any souped up Subaru has faded.

The moon’s a red balloon

As with all these mad cap ideas, when the alarm went off just three hours after going to bed I questioned my sanity. Experience tells me however that once over the initial shock of getting up in the middle of the night these crazy ideas are always worth it.

The combination of a ‘super moon’ and a total eclipse of the same, coupled with a forecast for a completely cloud free sky meant that it was just one of those things that we felt we shouldn’t miss. We wrapped up in unfamiliar winter clothing and crept out of the house, conscious that our neighbours are generally sane and would, most likely, be fast asleep in bed. It already felt like a mini adventure.

The moon was startlingly bright and it was immediately evident that we had only just got up in time. The shadow of the earth had already taken a small bite out of the brilliant white sphere, the show had already started. Surrounded as we were by street lights it wasn’t the best environment to appreciate a night time eclipse so our plan was to walk out of the village onto unlit lanes to get the full impact of the spectacle. As we walked along what I have always thought of as a relatively straight road the moon swung through nearly ninety degrees revealing the true change of direction we were taking. It made me think of the early navigators, traversing seas and deserts simply by observation of the planets. Travelling with hope and courage rather than GPS and backup mobile phone.

Orion was looking down on us, his sword and belt easy to identify but the still bright moon made the fainter stars of his bow harder to pick out. Similarly we could just make out Cassiopeia and The Plough. With ninety percent of the moon still beaming down our shadows on the road were sharp and distinct, the light easily sufficient to read by. The progress of the shadow was slow and we became aware of other elements of the night. The call of birds on the nearby creek, geese from the sound of them, and the smell of the damp earth as we took to a dirt track to get further from the light pollution. If we stood still it was possible to make out the occasional rustle of a creature in the hedgerow, perhaps a hedgehog or a rabbit.  As the moon’s light was slowly stolen by the shadow of the earth so the stars became brighter and easier to distinguish. Just a trace of the milky way could be seen and Venus, low on the horizon shone brightly, a real star shaped star, as if drawn from a child’s imagination.

The final brilliant ellipse was extinguished leaving us in a new kind of shadowless darkness. The moon was now a strange red circle framed by a brighter rim and we were mesmerised as we stood and stared until the pain in our necks grew too much to bear. Naively we imagined that the shadow would clear and the moon would reappear as quickly as it had been obscured but it didn’t. We had no idea that it would remain in it’s current state for an hour or more.

My pictures were nothing like this

My pictures were nothing like this

We waited and waited but reluctantly we gave in and began to wander back towards home, constantly checking over our shoulders for a sign of change but it never came. It was as if the show had been put on pause and we didn’t have the remote control to do anything about it.

We were cold by the time we got home and astonished to find that we had been wandering the darkening lanes for two hours. That’s longer than your average feature film and as it turned out a lot more entertaining than many. We took about twenty photographs of this rare phenomenon, every one of them was rubbish. But that’s OK. The photographs would probably have ended up languishing in some forgotten folder on Google Drive never to be seen again. Whereas the memories, the experience, they will last forever and what’s more they are high definition works of art. But you will have to take my word for that of course.

Wishing for the moon.

I have just read an article by micro adventure advocate Alastair Humphreys. As usual, it got me thinking.

Reflection on a long wiggly line

Reflection on a long wiggly line twelve months on

It is one year today since we got home from our long cycle tour around the coast of Britain. The anniversary brings with it a lot of reflection on what the trip meant to us and how it changed us. These challenging thoughts are accompanied by big decisions as we get closer to the time when we are in a position to stop working should we choose to. Right now, my thoughts are like a collection of washing tumbling backwards and forwards in a drier. Complex, tangled and not yet ready to be folded and stacked into neat organised piles.

In one sense we certainly got what we wanted from our break. It shook us up and gave us the thrust we needed to break away from whatever shackles every day life had tied us down with. We hoped that it would lead us in new directions and in some ways it has. We just aren’t too clear on which direction yet. Having a taste of adventure leaves you hungry for more, whatever form it might take.

We have made a decision recently that both excites me and worries me at the same time. We have been talking about the idea of living on a narrow boat and having weighed all the pros and cons we have come to the conclusion that it might be better to wait until we are in a position where we can do it without having to work. That’s fine except that it is probably at least five years away and that is where I am struggling. You see before we went away, and to some extent the reason we went away, was because we were really starting to understand the importance of living in the present. Making a five year plan feels like the very antithesis of ‘carpe diem’, or ‘seize the day’. In that sense our current idea seems like an abandonment of everything the trip taught us.

The plan I am talking about is to buy a cheap park home by cashing in some savings and to live rent free whilst clearing a mortgage on a house we own. That house produces a rental income and is part of the retirement plan. At about the same time that the mortgage is cleared a small private pension matures and we could then sell the park home, buy a narrow boat and sail off into the sunset free from the burden of earning a living. It sounds great when written down like that but for the small matter of wishing away those five years. So there lies our challenge. How do you maintain two focuses, one on today and the other years in the future, the second of which we have no guarantee of even reaching.

It doesn’t help that I happened to talk to a couple on a boat last week who live on board and manage to hold down part time jobs. Conversations like that fill me with doubt over whether we are doing the right thing. Maybe we should just throw caution to the wind and go for the narrow boat option now rather than wait. Who knows, we might not even like life on board. We might be waiting for five years only to find that actually, it wasn’t worth waiting for. I doubt that somehow though.

The challenge now is to seize the day, every day, just in case that distant dream, for whatever reason proves to be beyond our grasp. It’s a tricky one and it’s a good reason to set the alarm for 2am tomorrow and to get up and look at a giant red, eclipsed super moon because there wont be another one until 2033. By then, if we survive, we will know if we did the right thing waiting five years to do the right thing.

Moon

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