“Are you crazy?”

The song of the blackbird is a complex and beautiful thing, but not necessarily at 3.25am when it is just outside your open window. On this occasion, I was prepared to forgive him because this was the day of one of our annual dawn adventures and he was only five minutes ahead of the alarm I had set on my phone. I used the extra five minutes to listen to the seemingly infinite variety of beautiful calls that a blackbird can make and even smiled to myself as he seemed to try one or two that didn’t quite come off. If you have never listened to a blackbird then you should. It’s a sound that lifts the heart and is guaranteed to banish the saddest of feelings. I have read that the males sing like this to reinforce their territorial claims which seems a bit odd to me. Most animals spray urine or defecate to mark boundaries and many will openly fight. The blackbird sits on a post or rooftop and declares; “Just one step closer and I am warning you I will sing something even more beautiful than the last bit.” Rambo of the bird world he certainly is not. But this isn’t a blog about blackbirds; it’s a blog about going on a mini-adventure.

Ready for off

Ready for off

“You must be mad”, “Are you crazy?” or “Rather you than me” are the usual responses when I tell anybody that we plan to rise before the sun and head off for a walk or a bike ride, but these are knee-jerk reactions with no thought for what such an experience is really like. I’ll save you the bother of thinking it through for yourself and tell you what it’s like.

For me, at least, a good walk or bike ride in beautiful surroundings is a bit like a lovely tasty meal. That is to say that these things are satisfying in their own right but when you add a sprinkle of salt and vinegar to fish and chips or a generous handful of parmesan cheese Bolognese they really come to life. They are lifted to another level of sensation and choosing to set off on a walk or a bike ride before sunrise has the same effect. It adds spice. It turns just another outdoor experience into a mini-adventure. There is an enchanted short period before the sun rises when all the pleasures of being outdoors are intensified. The light is magical; the sounds are amplified and the smells are more distinct. There is a feeling of being part of a secret escapade simply because the majority of people wouldn’t contemplate doing such a thing. It’s as if the world is briefly yours and yours alone to explore and to indulge in. So that is why we crawled out of bed at 3.30am and put on our cycling kit.

Empty road, promising sky

Empty road, promising sky

The dual carriageway to Preston is normally a road we dread but at this hour it was a joy as we cycled side by side soaking up the passing sounds of the birds as they announced another day. After ten minutes we stopped in a layby for a quick breather and gasped at the beauty of the rapidly brightening eastern sky silhouetting the distant hills and the two hares that frolicked around in the field besides us. It was hard to imagine that just a few hours from now this road would be packed with speeding cars and lorries, their occupants totally unaware of our other world that had recently existed in another time.

Sunrise, Preston Marina

Sunrise, Preston Marina

Our destination was Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve about twenty miles from home and in the time it took us to get there our two worlds of calm and chaos had been bridged. As we arrived in the village of Rufford at 6am the traffic was already starting to build and it was a relief to escape into the peaceful sanctuary of the woods and be enveloped by the sounds and smells of nature once more. We crept into one of the many lakeside hides and tucked into a well-earned breakfast sandwich before taking in the scene before us. The early morning light was as sharp and clear as the mist on the lake was ghostly, and the sound of an owl reminded us that the brand new day was only just beginning. A heron flew towards us from the far shore and landed just twenty yards away to patiently await its own morning snack while a small duck (Pochard we thought) with two youngsters in tow glided back and forth just in front of our viewpoint.

View from the first hide

View from the hide

Now it was time to be still. To look, to listen and to breathe in the complex cocktail of aromas that surrounded us. The deep damp woody smell of the hide itself enhanced by the subtle fragrances from flowers and woodland plants all around us. The periods of complete silence broken by a tiny splash as a fish took a fly from the surface of the lake or the sudden surprisingly loud call of a moorhen amongst the reeds just below our viewpoint. Gradually our senses tuned in like eyes getting used to the dark as more and more of this magical scene was revealed. The incredibly subtle movement of the heron as it watches with infinite patience for a fish or frog in the shallows by the side of the lake. A huge bug clinging to a reed just inches in front of our eyes that we didn’t see until it moved and made us jump. It was like a secret magical world that would only be revealed if you were prepared to wait and let it come to you. This time of the day is something that is precious and deserves to be savoured and given space, it’s not a time for rushing around to see what can be seen. Let it come to you and the rewards are enchanting and will stay with you forever.

Inevitably the transient early morning had to come to an end and we prepared for a very different experience as we knew all along that this would be a trip of two halves. With some reluctance we pushed our bikes back out of the woods and taking the memories with us we took to the roads once more for the journey home.

We took a more circuitous route to get away from some of the heavier traffic and there was a little added spice as we progressed further and further along a road that we had been told more than once was “closed ahead”. Turning back at the first warning sign would have been like eating the fish and chips without the vinegar. This was a perfect opportunity to add that little extra zing as we gambled that we would be able to get through. I’m pleased to say that on this occasion the wager paid off.

We rode along quieter roads with names like Long Meanygate and Wholesome Lane and all the time the power of the sun grew steadily stronger reminding us of yet another reason for our crazy early start.  Sadly, in the crossing of a roundabout these quiet roads were but a memory as we plunged back into Preston and all our attention was immediately focused on the fast and heavy traffic around us. We weren’t quite finished with nature though as on the city marina there are dozens of pontoons supporting nest boxes for visitors from Namibia in the form of common terns. We made a small detour to see how these noisy but spectacular birds were getting on.

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City life

The population had boomed since our last visit and hundreds of birds are now sitting on one, two or sometimes three speckled brown eggs while their partners dive for fish to keep them sustained. In contrast to the peace and tranquillity of the woodlands this was a scene of noise, aggression and fast, furious movement. All the birds seem to be continuously at war with each other, squabbling over space and stealing food from the very beaks of other birds in random acts of ambush.

Just another argument

Just another argument

They screamed at each other and pecked furiously at their neighbours, keen to maintain their small precious share of the available space. It occurred to me that life in the city is pretty much the same whatever the species.

We arrived home in the middle of another hot day. The blackbird was still singing away from his high perch but now I looked at him a little differently. Now we shared a secret, this blackbird and me; we both knew what it feels like to experience a new day from the very, very beginning. That blackbird isn’t crazy, and neither are we.




Jam sandwiches

The thing I remember most acutely about riding my bike as a child was the sense of exploration. In the endless days of the summer holidays we would make up a few jam sandwiches and take off on another intrepid voyage into the unknown. The fact that so much is new during those tender years makes it easy to have an adventure. There is so much to discover and to wonder at. Whether it’s how far you can ride in a day or venturing deep into the woods to discover that witch’s grave we have heard about. It’s all a bit magical. Somebody asked me the other day how I got into cycling and I realise now that I gave them the wrong answer. I told them about how I started to ride a bike but that’s a subtly different thing. Learning to ride the bike is one thing but discovering what possibilities it opens up and going exploring on a bike is a whole new world. I think it was those early day rides that really got me into cycling and sowed the seeds of my life long cycle touring passion.

All this rose-tinted reminiscence was prompted by a short ride that Gill and I undertook last week. It wasn’t very long but it brought back all the wonderful sense of exploration and discovery that was so easy to find as a child. The idea for the ride came while I was looking at Google Earth and trying to work out exactly where in Preston the Lancaster Canal terminated. It was originally supposed to connect to the docks but it was never completed and its end point has been further truncated by a remodelling of the city centre. It now comes to an abrupt halt in the middle of a mixed residential and commercial area about a mile from the modern marina. It was strange to zoom in to what appeared to be closely packed terraced houses on narrow streets and find myself looking at the tops of narrow boats. This was something just crying out to be explored.

Inspiration

Inspiration

We picked up the canal along the wonderfully named Sidgreaves Lane and ducked under the first bridge bumping over the cobbled paving on our less than ideal touring bikes. We have walked this bit of the canal before and we passed under roads that were regular cycling routes but it wasn’t long before we were trying to work out the unfamiliar surroundings. It’s amazing how you can be in the middle of an area that you think you know well but when seen from a different perspective it all looks totally different.

Towpath tranquility

Towpath tranquility

The open fields either side of the water were soon replaced by sports facilities on the right and the odd bungalow on the left heralding the outskirts of the city. Modern houses, or urban sprawl if you prefer, encroached on both sides now and manicured gardens were adorned with private moorings and waterside decking. In contrast we glimpsed the Tulketh Mill chimney in the distance, a very familiar Preston landmark alongside the busy Blackpool Road reminding us that this watery artery would soon take us deep into the city. It was a marked contrast with the scene of peaceful serenity around us as moorhens and mallards went quietly about their business. A pair of proud swans glided by, protectively escorting their single tiny cygnet.

Mum, Dad and the little one

Soon we were passing right by the mill and under the main road and suddenly those terraced houses I had seen on the map were packed tightly along the far bank. Their gardens tumbled steeply down to the water’s edge, some immaculately terraced and trimmed, and others a wild riot of bramble and weed. More than one boasted its own private pub like construction complete with mock terrace bar and parasols. They were just crying out for our overdue summer to get underway and the opportunity to sip cool drinks in the balmy evening air. I was more than a little jealous of these idyllic havens hidden behind what would undoubtedly be unremarkable red brick terraced streets.

G and T for me please

G and T for me please

We had to lift the bikes over a short flight of stairs but there on the other side was the small marina and the narrow boats that had so intrigued me on Google Earth. That was it, the end of the canal and suddenly we were battling with busy city centre traffic as we made our way down to the marina. A completely new world of noise and fumes, traffic lights and five way junctions to negotiate, just yards from the canal terminus. It was like emerging from the peace and tranquillity of a cathedral into the chaos of the city centre. Ten minutes of mixing it with the traffic and we were at the old docks, now a smart residential and retail centre.

On the south side of the marina you can find Common Terns nesting. They have chosen to fly 12,000 km from Namibia to raise their new families in Preston. Sometimes nature is just beyond explanation. They squabble and bicker amongst themselves and with the coots, pigeons and seagulls that they share the nesting pontoons with. With their striking and sleek appearance they remind me of spivs, all slick and sophisticated on the outside but with a message that says, don’t mess with me.

Common Tern

Common Tern

We leave them to their aerial conflicts and head for the end of the dock and the channel that links it to the river Ribble. Massive lock gates control the tidal waters and I can see why narrow boat skippers are wary of this route back to the tranquil waters of the canals. There is no choice; it’s the only way to get from the Lancaster canal to the rest of the national network. Flat bottomed boats designed to cruise at 4mph are not well suited to fast moving tides and winds and it must be an exciting dash to the shelter and safety of still water.

Holding back the sea

Holding back the sea

Unfortunately the tide is out so there won’t be any boats on the river to entertain us today. That’s enough exploring for us and we turn tail and head for home on familiar cycle tracks and roads.

We had managed to spend over two hours covering a measly eighteen miles but it felt like a real voyage of discovery. The idea of riding into Preston city centre from where we live sounds about as appealing as an hour on a spinning bike in the gym but we had managed to turn it into a real adventure. For a couple of hours I was a carefree teenager once more, exploring the world around me and uncovering hidden gems right in my own back yard. It was wonderful, even magical.

We were starving when we got back. Next time I’ll take some jam sandwiches.