Tag Archives: Adventure

January 2020 – Shelter and Water, Survival weekend

I was going to get another blog post out on the wild plants and flowers front, however time has been against me this week, so I thought I’d share an experience from January, from my Bushcraft course, when we weren’t in lockdown and I was learning lots. By the way, I didn’t just write this all this evening, it’s from my course log which is 50,000 words long and growing; such a fascinating subject and I’m finding the tuition from The Woodcraft School excellent.

I think it’s fair to say we were all excited, if a little apprehensive, about the January training session down at the Woodcraft School in West Sussex. Not only was it another chance to have a go at the 3 hour bow drill test, something that hadn’t gone too well in the wet conditions to date, it was also our simulated survival weekend. The objective was to recreate a scenario where we were out for a day hike, but something went wrong meaning we were stuck in woodland for 2 nights, or more. This also meant we had minimal kit with us; just enough to deal with emergency situations. Being January it was likely to be cold, and possibly wet, so this wasn’t going to be the same as a pleasant summertime jaunt to a verdant forest full of life. On top of surviving the 2 nights, we also needed to find and purify our own water, something you’d definitely need to do in the event of being stuck somewhere for a while. Given I was likely to get pretty hungry and need a lot energy, I made a huge pile of trail mix to take with me; I may have gone a little excessive on this, having enough to last a couple of weeks, but it tasted so good in the middle of a cold winter’s night.

Trail mix

Trail mix – might have made too much but damned tasty

Given we needed to look after ourselves there were a few key lessons to take on-board, before we were released into the wild. These included learning about what water is used for in the body, symptoms of dehydration and how to fix it, how to source and purify water, as well as how to recognise and deal with hypothermia (too cold) and hyperthermia (to hot), and research into shelter types.

I won’t inflict you with the pages of notes I made on this, however if you’re interested then I’m thinking of a few future blog posts on the subject, so stay tuned.

The brief was to simulate needing to survive after unexpected circumstances forced you to remain in a given location for an extended period of time; in this instance a broad-leaf forest with plenty of water, which was somewhat less challenging, or at least different to, being for example halfway up a mountain in the Alps. I think it’s safe to say we all approached the weekend with a certain amount of trepidation, trying to work out what kit we should take, how we were going to keep warm, and what food was best.

Exploring my woodland block

Exploring my woodland block

Given the brief we were only allowed to take a day sack with limited equipment and food, so sleeping bags were right out, as were tents and hammocks and tarps. No sleeping bag, or insulating sleeping mat, in January, oh good. We also needed to be able to source and purify our own water, make fire, build an adequate shelter, and cook basic food.

All the knowledge and skills we’d learned to date would come into play over the course of the weekend, so it was a good opportunity to put everything into practice, and grow in confidence in the outdoors. I hope to be able to lead groups in the wild in future, and this was definitely a stepping stone on that journey.

The aim was to be able to thrive and not just survive, and I like to think that by the end of the weekend, and after lots of learnings, I was getting there; just a shame I sat on the spoon I was carving.

What to take?

With a maximum capacity of 20 to 30 litres we were limited on what we could take. I opted to use an army surplus day/patrol pack to carry everything I needed, which was pretty full by the time I’d finished packing. I must have unpacked and repacked that bag a dozen times whilst deciding what to take, and probably still took too much kit, however if the weather conditions had been different, for example including rain or snow, I’d have perhaps needed the extra change of clothes and waterproof trousers.

Below is a brief summary of what I took with me

  • Army surplus patrol pack – about 30L
  • Outdoor trousers (tough) and clothing, plus spare set of clothing in dry sack, mutiple layers and dry socks , hat, buff, shemagh, hat
  • Waterproof jacket – Craghoppers; I’d have preferred ventile cotton or thick wool with ventile patches, which would be spark resistant, but will need to save up for that
  • Bushcraft knife and laplander saw
  • Paracord, sling and carabiner
  • Fire making kit including some tinder
  • Water bottle x 2 and collapsible water vessels x 2, Millbank bag (brown bag – expedition sized), puritabs (not used)
  • Life venture screw capped lid cup, which almost keeps your brew too hot
  • Zebra billy can, spork, cloth
  • Headtorch
  • First Aid Kit – only cut myself once, toothbrush
  • Food: Pasta and pesto sauce, chocolate, smoked sausage, dried apricots, trail mix – far too much trail mix as it happens, but you never know when you might have guests, couple of apples, tabasco sauce (always goes with me on cycle tours), cereal bars, dried oats and honey
  • Brew kit – herbal teas
  • Rab down jacket – in compression sack
  • Poncho (US army) – I could probably have done without this, but would have been invaluable if it’d rained
  • Emergency foil blanket (space blanket)
  • Toilet roll and hand sanitiser (gel)
  • Mobile phone and battery pack, notebook and pen

Getting started

To simulate a survival situation we were all dropped off, individually, into our own block of woods away from our usual camping area. After a morning of being together with the group I was suddenly alone amongst chestnut and birch trees, with just the sound of birds for company; followed shortly by Sib shouting hello from about 100 metres away, breaking my wilderness reverie.

With several hours of daylight left, and enough drinking water to last me for a bit, my priority was to get a shelter built and gather fire wood; it was going to be a cold night with temperatures forecast to drop below freezing. The area of woods I was in had plenty of standing deadwood to use, in the form of Sweet Chestnut and some Silver Birch, so I set about cutting some down using my laplander, to create both firewood and material to build my shelter from.

Whilst a laplander saw is efficient and easy to carry, I did start to miss using a bow saw after about an hour of processing wood! I guess one wouldn’t usually take a bow saw on a day hike though. I soon had the basis of a shelter built, trying to position the opening away from the prevailing wind. I used forked pieces of wood up against trunks for the two side pieces, with a cross bar running between them. I also pegged the side poles at the end to stop them from slipping backwards. I chose a spot that had a bit of natural shelter due to the lay of the land, with sufficient trees to use for support, and no low overhanging live branches that would get singed by my fire. I was also mindful to remove any dangerous looking standing deadwood from the immediate vicinity lest it fall on me if it got windy.

Before building too much of the shelter I decided to build a raised bed, as it’s easier to do that without a roof being present. I constructed the raised bed using forked pieces of wood pushed into the ground, with poles running between the forks to make a platform about a foot off the ground. I needed some greenwood for this so coppiced some Hazel from a nearby ride edge, bringing it back to my camp. As well as making the forks and some of the poles, I also made a mallet and a couple of wedges for splitting wood, and used the brash to create a springy base-layer for my bed.

On reflection I think it might have been easier to use some bigger logs to lay the poles upon for my bed, rather than use forks of Hazel, although it did add to the springiness. I did consider making a V shaped bed, as I often sleep on my side; the V shape of the base creates a comfortable shape to sleep in. However this would have lost be valuable ground clearance and not allowed hot air from my fire to circulate under the bed. It’s nice to have a raised area to sit on next to the fire rather than the ground; a good whittling spot that avoids a wet posterior is essential!

Using the Hazel I also created a Whagon Stick pot hanger, which proved invaluable over the course of the weekend for boiling water and heating food; I was really chuffed with how well it worked.

With bed frame done I got to work finishing my shelter, or at least finishing it as much as I could on day 1. I covered the lean-to roof with more poles, using deadwood, and also wove in some more Hazel brash to create a layer leaves wouldn’t fall through; I needed to pile on about a foot of leaves to act as insulation.

I took a break mid-afternoon to go and source some water, and whilst on my wanderings decided to collect some Western Red Cedar boughs to make a better mattress for my bed. The boughs act as good insulation, especially when woven together so the ends don’t prod you during the night, and they smell nice, which I reckon leads to sweeter dreams.

With dusk approaching and plenty of firewood prepared I also though it prudent to get a fire going. I made a base from split chestnut, behind the beginnings of a reflector, and created a V-fire using a few feather sticks I’d prepared earlier and some silver birch bark. I initially positioned the fire about 3 feet from my bed, however by the second night it was considerably closer.

Finding and purifying water

I must admit finding water wasn’t too much of a challenge. It had been raining so much over the previous few months the water table was very high, and I didn’t have far to walk to find a spring. The water from the spring was very clear already, having filtered through sandy soil, however I thought I’d better pass it through my millbank bag to be on the safe side. I hung my millbank bag from the sling and carabiner I’d brought with me; I often carry a sling and carabiner or two with me as they’re useful for so many things, a habit from my more frequent climbing days.

Millbank bag and sling set up

Millbank bag and sling set up for filtering water

Interestingly I did follow the spring up the hill to see if I could find its source, or a better place to collect water from easily, and came upon what looked like old style septic tanks, or the settling tanks anyway, behind a house backing on to the woods. They were however several hundred metres uphill from the spring where I took my water from, so I figured the ground would have done most of the work for me by filtering out any nasties etc.

My millbank bag has a fairly slow flow rate, despite having run it through a rinse cycle in my washing machine at home a few times, however by constantly topping it up and collecting water in the small pan from my zebra billy can kit, I was able to collect a large amount of filtered water in one of my collapsible water vessels; I used the other one to collect unfiltered water. I remembered to let a decent amount of water run through the bag, down to the line, before I started to collect it, to make sure I was only getting filtered water and not drips off the outside.

Cooking set up

Billy can and Whagon stick – water purification in progress

It was then just a matter of boiling water over my fire, using the zebra can and pot hanger, and either drinking it straight away as tea, or storing it in a water bottle. I’m pleased to say my system meant I had more that enough clean water throughout the weekend, including enough to wash the essentials with – face, pits and bits; warm water of course.

The First Night

As night fell the temperature dropped, and I hastily made some last adjustments to my shelter, piling more leaves on top as insulation. I reckoned I had enough firewood to see me through the night, intending to widen my fire into a long log fire to provide sufficient warmth. I hadn’t had time to build a large reflector yet, but was warm enough once I put on my down jacket as an additional layer, and lay down on my raised bed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was pretty much dark by 17.00, but that was far too early to go to bed, despite which I’d have needed more firewood if I intended to keep a long log fire going from then all the way through to the morning. I had my head torch so kept busy processing a bit more firewood from the dead chestnut and silver birch I’d felled earlier, starting to make some sides for my shelter, and then cooking some food a bit later on; pasta with pesto and a bit of smoked sausage, with tabasco sauce to spice things up a little, and plenty of tea.

Pasta and pesto

Pasta and pesto, with spork

I widened my fire into a long long fire before finally turning in, making sure I had plenty of wood within easy reach to add throughout the night. This included more kindling to get the fire going easily should it go out. I was comfy lying on my bed, electing to keep my shoes on as my feet were mostly warm in my boots. I used my poncho as a bit of a blanket but it didn’t work very well, as moisture built up underneath it. With the fire and shelter I was mostly warm enough.

I was a little nervous about the fire either going out if I fell asleep too deeply (I can sleep fairly deeply anywhere), or if it sparked and set fire to my shelter or firewood pile; I was burning mostly seasoned chestnut which spits enthusiastically. As a precaution I pegged a large log between me and the fire. As I had plenty of water I boiled a last lot before my first sleep cycle and transferred it to one of my water bottles. I placed this between my thighs to warm the blood in my femoral arteries, which proved a great way of staying warmer for a couple of hours. Had it been colder it would have also meant I’d have had non frozen water in the morning.

It was very peaceful lying in the woods, listening to the owls and gazing up at the stars. After a busy day of non-stop preparation it was great just to stop and switch off for a bit, with a full stomach and a little bit of chocolate as dessert. I considered how privileged I was to be in such a beautiful woodland, sleeping next to a fire in a similar manner to that my ancestors must have done for thousands of years.

I probably initially went to sleep about 22.00, for a couple of hours, then woke up and loaded more wood on to the fire. I then slept again in 1 to 2 hour intervals throughout the night, waking to add more firewood, or nip to the loo because I’d drunk too much tea; it was much colder away from my fire!

Day two – Camp improvements and Learnings

I awoke about 06.30 hours with my fire still glowing, and the woods just about starting to get lighter. I lay still for another 30 minutes, despite realising my feet were now pretty chilly and I needed the loo; my bed was pretty comfy and I was enjoying the dawn chorus.

Eventually the need for a hot drink, breakfast, and to warm my feet up with some activity got me out of bed, up and moving. I was feeling pretty happy about having made it through the first night without too much difficulty, and for having had just about enough firewood. I decided I needed more for tonight though, as it was likely to get a bit colder, and I could have burned more if I’d wanted warmer feet. As I was getting up a roe deer passed through the woods not far from my camp, disappearing up the hill; he or she didn’t seem too alarmed at my presence.

Camp complete with XR flag

Camp complete with XR flag

We were due to meet up as a group about 11.30, so I spent the morning preparing more firewood and water, as well as putting proper sides on my shelter. I’d forgotten about my space blanket so used that for one side, and started to weave a wall of hazel together on the other.

It was good to meet up with the rest of the group to see how they were doing, and encouraging to learn everyone had made it through the night without having to retreat to tents and sleeping bags. I think we were all fortunate that it hadn’t rained, which would have made things trickier, and meant I’d probably have needed more leaf litter on my roof or to incorporate the poncho. As well as a walk through the woods to learn some winter twig identification, we had a bit of a debrief on what we could do to improve our shelters and well-being. Some points below to remember:

  • For a long log fire make a big base out of logs to raise it off the ground. This creates a good long lasting bed of embers, and will initially protect any tree roots.
  • Make sure you have an adequate supply of feather sticks and kindling to get your fire going again if you need to; you don’t want to have to spend an hour doing it during the night when you’re cold and sleepy
  • Create ‘fire piles’ of wood to manage your long log fire through the night. You can easily pick these up and use the set to get your fire going again for your next sleep cycle. You should be able to sleep well for 3 hours before needing to redo your fire, although it may initially be a little hot to be close to
  • Think big on the fire, and adequately long to give your whole body warmth. And always get more firewood than you think you’re going to need; in general I think I was okay on this score
  • Close the ends of your shelter to stop drafts and trap hot air from the fire
  • Raise your bed so hot air can flow underneath it, and to give you a sit spot
  • Put a greenwood ‘banksmen’ (large log) in front of your fire to stop it rolling into your bed, and move your fire closer to your bed for warmth; people have died because they were just a couple of metres away from the warm zone of their fire
  • Use a reflector to reflect/radiate heat back into your shelter. You can just use logs for this, or incorporate a space blanket
  • Loosen you boots to keep your feet warmer. This traps a layer of air around your toes as heat; top tip and helped me the following night
  • Lean to shelters need to have a 45 degree angle, and not be too far off the ground
  • Orientate your shelter to the prevailing wind, and to take advantage of the sun rise
  • Remember hygiene – wash hands etc
  • Lip salve and hand moisturiser really are a boon to stop skin cracking; I’d remembered the lip salve
  • Rotate your sleep and activity through 3 hour blocks
  • Recognise what is wrong and act on it
  • Thrive not survive

I’d covered off several of the above points already, however once lessons were over I was keen to get back and perform some more enhancements to my shelter, whilst we still had some daylight. I built up the reflector for my long log fire using greenwood, and made sure it was secure by tying the staked poles together at their tops. I also set a large greenwood banksmen in front of my bed, moving the fire a little closer. I harvested a little more Western Red Cedar for my bed, and finished the sides of my shelter to shut out breezes. I also added some more leaf litter and trimmed down some of my shelter poles to stop them poking through it; prevents water running down them if it rains. By the time it was starting to get dark I was pretty happy with my set up for the night, although I could have kept on enhancing and adding features for days!

Me and my camp

Me and my camp

The Second Night

I had more firewood prepared than the previous evening, and wanted to try for a bigger fire throughout the night as it felt like it was going to be colder. This worked well however at one point my reflector did catch fire, and I had to hastily insert a new banksmen between it and the main blaze. I again feasted on pasta, pesto and smoked sausage, and munched my way through large quantities of trail mix.

Long log fire with reflector

Long log fire with reflector

It was definitely a colder night so I was glad of the bigger fire, although I did find it got a bit smokey at times, perhaps because some of the wood was a little damp, but also because the wind had slightly changed direction. I think I need to mix up my firewood a bit more in future, and try and use some oak or ash as well as chestnut and birch. The former burn long and hot, the latter bright and more briefly.

As I’d got most things done I settled down to try whittling a spoon for an hour or two, before my first sleep cycle. I also made a few extra hooks for my shelter, and an upright fork to put at the front to support the cross beam, which had more weight on it now.

I slept fairly well again on night two, and was definitely warmer with the improvements I’d made to the shelter; this was fortunate as it was definitely colder. I don’t think I managed a three hour chunk of sleep, but I got close, and my fire stayed alight throughout with regular restocking. I had plenty of wood left in the morning to get some breakfast going, and awoke feeling fairly refreshed to the sunrise and a beautiful dawn chorus.

Wintry sunrise - glorious

Wintry sunrise – glorious sights, sounds and smells

We made it!

I should mention toilet facilities for the weekend. Going for a wee isn’t really an issue, as long as you go far enough away from a water source; 100 metres or so. For number two’s it was a case of finding somewhere discrete and out of the way, digging a shallow hole, and using that. You don’t want to dig too deep as there won’t be organisms present to break down the faeces, but equally you don’t want anything too shallow that will leave a nasty surprise for someone; a ‘poo mine’. Toilet paper should be burned.

Listening to the birds sing

Listening to the birds sing

I’d made it through two nights in the woods without a sleeping bag, and was feeling hale and healthy. My shelter had worked and I’d learned more practical ways to thrive and not just survive. I got some water boiling for tea, and had a a quick wander to stretch my legs, noticing ice on the surface of my water collecting pan; must have been a chilly night away from the fire.

We had a few hours in the morning prior to the next dreaded bow drill test attempt, to relax and spend time at our camps. It was hard not to keep tinkering with improvements and thoughts on how to expand, or to start processing more firewood! I did a bit more spoon carving to pass the time.

Below are a few final pictures from my camp. Looking at them I could have added more leaf litter to the bottom end of my lean-to, and filled in some gaps, but I’m pleased with out it served me through the weekend.

Before leaving I removed any man made items from my shelter, including my bright Extinction Rebellion flag which had made it very easy to see where my camp was from a distance, and any artificial cordage (paracord); I’d used a couple of withies in other places. I made sure my fire was well and truly out, using my left over water, and packed my bags; I still had lots of trail mix left, and at the time of writing this it’s still going! All natural materials will be turned into habitat piles upon our next visit to the site in February. I’ll be interested to see how my shelter has faired in the meantime, and perhaps tempted for a quick snooze.

Oh, and I accidentally sat on my spoon, d’oh.

Wild plants and flowers part 2

Time for part 2 of my wild plants and flowers blog, where I attempt to identify the various species I find roundabout where I live in Norfolk. I think  there must be hundreds of different plant species out there at the moment, I keep seeing new ones every time I go out for a walk or cycle ride, so I’ll only cover a fraction of what’s on my doorstep.

Is this week 6 in lockdown? I can’t remember how long I’ve been working from home now but it’s starting to get a little dull with the lack of office banter. At least I’m mostly still getting out for my daily cycle or walk, although I did miss a couple of days last week due to it being a bit wet and just not having the motivation. I’ve said it before but I do feel very fortunate to have such wonderful countryside and scenery on my doorstep, even if Norfolk does lack any serious hills or big forests; the Broads make up for it!

I really like what some enthusiasts are doing at the moment; using chalk to label the names of plants they’re finding in villages, towns and cities across Europe. Brilliantly educational for people out on their daily exercise, especially children. I suspect there was a time when kids were just taught the names of wild plants, and what they can be used for, as a matter of course, but that knowledge has faded. Using chalk to label the plants, which will wash off harmlessly in the next shower, is a great idea; and yes strictly speaking it might be illegal, but so are the air pollution levels in many towns, or driving whilst using a mobile phone, or fly tipping, but people get away with that all the time. I think we can let a bit of educational and colourful graffiti that is bringing a bit of joy slip.

On Sunday I rode my bike up to the coast at Happisburgh because I wanted to see the sea. It was actually the sound of the waves hitting the shore that I wanted to hear, rather than seeing it. Pedalling the country lanes was lovely, the verges covered in plants and flowers, insects buzzing and kestrels hovering. I also saw a stoat hunting along a hedgerow with its distinctive black tipped tail, but too fast to photo.

It was a 62km round trip on my bike, taking about two and a half hours. I want to start building up my cycling distances again in case I decide to do another long cycle tour once we’re out of lockdown. I’d really quite like to cycle round the coast of Britain again, which I first did in 2013. It was a wonderful trip, and I learnt so much about my own country; you can read about it on my Bike around Britain blog.

Before I get onto this week’s plants, here’s a short bit of film I took up at Happisburgh, in case you’d like to hear the sea too (and the wind).

On to plants.

The photo of this first one is from several week’s ago, and also contains a few other hedgerow species. Focussing on the plant in the middle with the arrow shaped leaves; Lords and Ladies, also known as Cuckoo Pint (Arum maculata). Some of the country lanes round me have banks crowded with it.

Lords and Ladies

Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum)

It’s got lots of other names, some of them quite evocative such as Jack in the pulpit, Devils and angels, Friar’s cowl and Adder’s root; these names might be down to the different plant parts looking like male and female genitalia. Later in the year it produces a fruiting stalk that grows up from the centre, with distinctive orange-red berries. You can see this around July/August and into Autumn. The flower, a cobra like hood, is nestled in amongst the leaves and is different again. It smells like rotting meat which attracts flies, which in turn pollinate the flower, pretty cool. I’ll try to get some photos of the different parts as they appear. Lords and ladies is poisonous as it contains oxalate acid crystals. These crystals are spiky and can irritate the tissue of your mouth and digestive track if swallowed. If you’re allergic to such things it could cause your throat to close up. I have tried a little bit and it’s definitely got a sharp and heated aftertaste, that builds with time; apparently the older you are the longer it takes to notice.

Lords and ladies is native to the UK, in England, Wales but not so much Scotland. It’s a perennial, and prefers the shaded areas. The plant contains large amounts of starch, so was used in washing for collars etc. I’m told that when the ‘gentry’ used to select their washerwomen they’d look for those with the sore red hands, as they’d be the hard workers; their hands were afflicted by the oxalate acid in the Lords and ladies.

Ground Ivy 1

Ground Ivy and interesting ladybird

I’ve included a couple of pics of this next one, Ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea). I like this first picture because of the interesting ladybird, and the pretty small purple flowers. Ground-ivy is another one of these plants that has multiple names, including Alehoof, Gill-over-the-ground, Catsfoot and Creeping charlie. I prefer Alehoof as before the introduction of hops Saxons used it to brew beer. It’s another native perennial and common throughout most of the UK, flowering from March to May.

Ground Ivy 2

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) – nice little purple flowers

I found this one in a graveyard, but it pops up all over the place and is considered an invasive weed by many. It’s actually a member of mint family, which you can tell by its square stem. I also don’t think anything that can be used to brew beer should count as invasive or a nuisance, although it can spread rapidly by runners or seed. I believe the leaves can be eaten in salads, but the plant might be toxic to livestock. Apparently it has lots of traditional herbal medicine uses, but I really don’t know if any of them are effective; treating eye inflammation, tinnitus, lung herb (bronchitis), as an astringent or a diuretic. I have a feeling a lot of uses were just made up, the old placebo effect.

 

 

I really want to cover wild garlic on this blog, also known as Ramsoms, however I’m learning there are probably several varieties.

Three-cornered garlic

Three-cornered garlic – Allium triquetrum

This photo I think is of Three-cornered garlic (Allium triquetrum), which is the same family as Ramsoms, and no doubt still counts; it certainly smells strongly of onions. I think this particular variety counts as an invasive species as it can smother out native species, meaning it’s illegal to plant it out in wild. If it is this then I’m seeing a lot of it on the banks of country lanes round me. For reference it flowers April to June and likes shady spots.

 

Wild Garlic - Ramsoms

Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) – broader leaves

The variety I wanted a photo of has broader leaves, and I found loads of it when I was down South last. This is what I regard as Ramsoms (Allium ursinum), and the two photos that follow are courtesy of the Wild Food UK website – https://www.wildfooduk.com/edible-wild-plants/wild-garlic/

 

Wild garlic flowers

Wild garlic flowers

This species is definitely native, and the flowers are quite different. It can be found over most of England and Wales, and Southern Scotland, in damp and shaded areas, especially woodland. It flowers from April to June. I love it for making pesto, and the whole plant is edible, however I would avoid digging up the bulbs so it can regrow. Garlic has a number of health benefits including treating high blood pressure and cholesterol. I’ve no doubt it has loads of other benefits too, including the obvious of keeping vampires away. I reckon you can use it pretty much anywhere you’d usually use garlic, so I think I’ll try adding some to guacamole next time I make it. Don’t get it confused with Lily of the Valley which looks similar but is poisonous; doesn’t smell anywhere near the same though.

Following the trauma of trying to work out which wild garlic is which, here’s something a little easier, and which again there is loads of around me at the moment.

White Deadnettle

White Deadnettle (Lamium album)

White Deadnettle (Lamium album) is very common alongside footpaths, hedge-banks and roadsides, but apparently gets rarer as you travel north. It’s a perennial and flowers from March to December. Like Red Deadnettle covered last time it won’t sting you. I’m told it can be eaten like spinach but I’ve not tried it. Herbal medicine wise it has been used to treat catarrh, and the flower used for treating sore throats and bronchitis. Apparently it might also be effective as a sedative.

Whilst it might have uses for humans, I think it’s of more use to the different varieties of insect I see feeding off it. Not mowing the roadside verges is definitely helping our insect friends thrive at the moment.

 

Yellow Archangel

Yellow Archangel (Lamium galeobdolon)

Here’s another Deadnettle, which I’d somehow failed to consciously notice before now, despite it being common in England and Wales. It’s a perennial flowering from May to June, although I saw it out in April this year; maybe another symptom of climate change and average temperatures going up. This one is called Yellow Archangel (Lamium galeobdolan), and I love the bright yellow hooded flowers. This example appeared to have slightly variegated leaves, which I don’t know if is usual or not; from the pictures I’ve seen I don’t think so. I believe you can eat the young leaves and shoots, and that the leaves taste slightly spicy. I might have to try making a tea or soup from it. All these plants seem to have multiple potential uses, and this one is again a diuretic and astringent, amongst other things.

Whist I’m doing ‘nettles’ I ought to cover the well known and often disliked Stinging Nettle (Urtica diocea), which I’ve no doubt most people can recognise.  This is common pretty much everywhere, and most definitely counts as a native perennial. It grows in woods, wasteland, gardens, field edges and footpaths, and is much loved by several species of butterflies, for their caterpillars. It’s definitely worth keeping a small patch in your garden, and not just for the insects. The small hollow hairs on the nettle leaves and stems are what sting, containing formic acid and histamine.

Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettle (Urtica diocea)

Stinging Nettles are amazing plants as they have so many uses, and as they grow pretty much everywhere, and quickly, you can easily get hold of lots of them. They contain Vitamin B, as well as A, C and K, the aforementioned formic aid, minerals such calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and sodium. They  also contain between 19% and 21% protein, so they’re truly a superfood. I have made nettle soup from them, and thrown them in stews like spinach, you just have to remember to remove the hairs first by crushing and rolling them. That reminds me, I think you can use the pith from the inside of the stem to treat nettle stings, which could be handy, although you’ll probably sting yourself getting to the pith. Pretty much a superfood I reckon, and will be useful if the supermarket shelves go empty. It flowers from May to September.

Nettle cordage

Nettle cordage

One more use for the amazing nettle; you can make cordage out of it. Collect a load of stems, perhaps keeping the leaves for food, and split them down into long fibres by crushing the nodes, squishing the stem and separating, removing the pith. To make nettle string you dry the fibres for at least 20 minutes, then twist two lengths together in a twist and kink motion, which would be much easier to demonstrate than describe with words. Over the course of an evening round a campfire you can make quite long lengths of cordage that can be used for all sorts of things.

I think that’s your lot for today as I’ve noticed my word count has crept over 2000 and I don’t want people to fall asleep. I also want to save Umbellifers for next time, when I’ll perhaps cover the likes of Hemlock, and Hemlock Water Dropwort, both of which can kill you reasonably easily, although one is more painful than the other. And Hemlock is absolutely everywhere! That’s one of the reasons I don’t really like eating anything from that family, as I don’t want to get Cow Parsley mixed up with something that’s going to send me over the River Styx in a speed boat. I’ll see if I can find some Cow Parsley and Hogweed too though.

As before please don’t take any notes I’ve made concerning medicinal uses as gospel, as there are lots of different opinions out there, and different people are allergic to different things. Please do your own research.

I’ll leave you with a picture of a cat in a box, because cats love boxes for some reason, especially this one.

Cat in a box

Cat in a box – Boxus catus

Until next time, stay frosty.

A wander down country ways

Another week done and it’s suddenly Easter! I’ve fallen into a new routine and try to get out once a day for a walk or a bike ride, around work stuff. Dunno how long the lockdown is going to go on for, but feels like a few weeks at least. Was hoping to get down to my parents for Easter, but obviously that’s not going to be possible. At least I can still stay in touch with family via FaceTime etc. Happy Easter everyone!

One of my excursions this week ended up at Salhouse Church, where I sat under Yew tree for a bit. I wrote a poem about the Yew, a tree that has a lot of mythology associated with it. If you fall asleep under them you can end up having very strange dreams, especially when there’s pollen in the air.

Yew Tree at Salhouse Church

Yew Tree at Salhouse Church

A wander down country ways,
To ease the stress of strangest days,
I stumble on a church and grounds,
Yew trees gather close around,

These guardians of ancient sites,
Witnesses to age old rites,
Dare I climb its spiky limbs,
As evening comes and daylight dims,

Instead I sit and breathe in deep,
Will Yew tree pollen make me sleep,
And bring with it the strangest dreams,
Not everything is at is seems,

A gateway to deathly halls,
Its poison touch darkness calls,
But life and rebirth it can bring,
Something good to make one sing,

I didn’t climb this mystic tree,
Respectful of its solemn key,
I’ll find another trunk to climb,
And come back here another time.

I’ve been exploring a few new trails on my bike rides, finding new hidden gems I wasn’t aware of.

I’m not sure I’d be able to stay sane if I wasn’t able to get outside once a day. The good weather is definitely helping too.

Norfolk has a lot of churches, a testament to its rich farming past. Landowners competed for prestige by building churches, some of them quite large in relatively small villages.

For some reason I always convert church photos to black and white, seems to work quite well. As a counter here are some Bluebells from down by Salhouse Broad, which have started to come out in the woodlands round me; useful ancient woodland indicator species.

As usual it’s beautiful down by Salhouse Broad at the moment, especially given it’s relatively quiet, with plenty of room to maintain social distancing rules. Very grateful to have it on my doorstep.

I’ve been trying to get to grips with learning new plant species.  Hedgerows are crowded with new growth, flowers and colours. There are at least 4 species of nettle I’ve seen (dead nettles), as well as lesser celandine, stitchwort, chickweed, Alexanders; I think I’ll do a separate blog post for wild flowers and plants, which will help me learn their names, especially the Latin ones!

It’s great cycling at the moment, a real pleasure with so few cars on the road. I’m really hoping that when we get back to ‘normal’ people choose to use their cars less, maybe work from home more. It would do wonders for the environment, and hopefully mean people have more time to enjoy the important things in life. Less cars also means less road kill, which has been very noticeable over the last few weeks. Nature is definitely breathing a sigh of relief with verges left to grow, and animals and birds spared being hit by traffic.

I’ve been trying to get a bit of track and sign practice in too, as I’ll be assessed on it later this year. It’s got trickier this week as the ground is harder (not rained for a while), and given I only have a brief window of opportunity each day I can’t explore as much as I’d like to. I found a nice Muntjac deer print (think it is anyway), and the remains of a pigeon which I reckon was taken by a bird of prey. Also found a bearded lizard in my herb garden! (they might be pets though)

I’ll finish with a picture from Wroxham Bridge, showing a very quiet river. Last Easter Wroxham was packed with visitors, but today there’s practically tumbleweed blowing down the high street. Oh, and here are some cat pics too – current house guests leaving fur everywhere whilst enjoying finding new places to sleep.

Adios for now.

Bushcraft and Autumn at Salhouse Broad – 2019

Following on from completing the Advanced Bushcraft Certificate in June, I started a year long course in October. It’s part of a plan to diversify my skill and knowledge base, with a view to future changes of lifestyle and vocation; essentially I’m going to need a new job soon, and would love to work more in the outdoors, with like-minded people. Hopefully I can combine this with a few other things I’m dabbling in when my current job winds up next year. The course, a Certificate of Applied Bushcraft, is run by the Woodcraft School down in West Sussex.

It’s a big time commitment, the course running once a month from October 2019 to June 2020. It runs over a series of long weekends, with research and practice required in between each session. I’m part of a group of 10 or so students, all with varying degrees of existing knowledge and skills, but all bound by a passion for and interest in the outdoors, nature, woodcraft and bushcraft. Am I woefully ill-prepared and lacking in the pre-requisites? Only one way to find out!

I’ll attempt to keep this blog updated as I go, and hopefully won’t poison myself, contract hypothermia, or slice off a limb in the meantime. Bit worried about the January session during which we have to overnight without a sleeping bag, relying purely on the skills we’ve learnt; let’s hope the rain eases off.

Amongst last month’s teachings we learned more about fire-starting, and left with instructions to gather natural tinder and coal-extenders. This weekend has been mostly dry so I decided to venture forth to gather suppliers to add to my ‘fire-box’. Salhouse Broad is only down the road, and somewhere I walk regularly, thus was a good place to start. I last visited after the Rebellion in October; it was still pretty green then.

Autumn has definitely advanced in my absence, the Broad having quietened down and most trees now brown, yellow or gold, or even bare of leaf.

Whilst the spring and summer months are full of life and activity, I think I prefer the autumn and winter, which bring a stillness to the area. Gone are masses of folk on holiday, as well as the constant drone from boats, and people hiring canoes or picnicking.

I wandered my usual route, taking in the changes since my last visit. I gathered tinder in the form of seed heads and dead bracken, all of which should take a spark from flint and steel (or ferro-rod in my case), and will work for the fire-by-friction test next week; bow drill is going to be a challenge if our current streak of wet weather persists. I stopped to check on the little cluster of surviving Elm trees, hidden from view of the beetle which carries the fungi causing Dutch elm disease.

Birch bark is also excellent as tinder, and taking the outer peeling bits of bark doesn’t do the tree any harm. It’s full of Betulin oil and lights very easily.

After a busy week, including an XR critical mass bike ride yesterday, it was good to pause for a bit and reflect on things. All a bit worrying with the big floods up north seemingly set to get worse, fires raging in Australia and in many other parts of the world, and water shortages in South Africa. It’s only a matter of time before we see a massive increase in the number of climate refugees, driven from their homes by lack of water, famine, or fighting over remaining resources. Part of the reason I’m doing this bushcraft course is to improve the skills I might need should things go from bad to worse, which really can’t be ruled out. Let’s not mention the general election.

With tinder gathered it was time to head back home. I might have played with the colours in one of the photos below!

I’ve now got a collection of various tinder types, which’ll hopefully work over the next few months. I need to find more in the way of coal extenders – some bracket fungi and suchlike. I’ll save that for next time.

Will keep you posted on Bushcraft course progress, assuming next weekend goes well!

Bike Packing the Wild About Argyll Trail

At the beginning of July I headed up to Scotland on the sleeper train from London to Glasgow, to ride some of the Wild About Argyll bike packing trail from Helensburgh to Oban. It’s a route I’ve been pondering for a while, and perfect to put my new Trek 1120 through its paces.

I thoroughly recommend the sleeper train for getting up to Scotland. A quick trip on the train down from Norwich, then fall asleep after a meal out in the big smoke, to wake up Glasgow. A courier picked up our bikes in London as there wasn’t room on the train for the trip up, but it was at no extra cost and we collected them from just outside Glasgow station upon our arrival. Judging from the courier’s agenda the bikes had an interesting journey up north, accompanying coffins!

From Glasgow we hopped on a local train up to Helensburgh where the Wild About Argyll Trail (#waat) starts, although we nearly didn’t get off at the right station due to being confused about Helensburgh Upper versus Helensburgh Central; we had to disembark rather rapidly under the critical eye of the train guard.

I usually go on tour on my own, however this time my friend Ian came with me; he has far more mountain biking experiencing than me, so I was hoping to pick up some tips! I was slightly nervous about navigating off-road, as well as negotiating some of the trails, so handy to have someone else along to share the ride.

Here are links to our routes on Strava, for interested readers.

Day 1 – Helensburgh to Ardentinny: https://www.strava.com/activities/1685170867/embed/a3c63e0a2b5adb46fbf201b24457b510535873a6

Day 2 – Ardentinny to Portavadie: https://www.strava.com/activities/1688609321/embed/4aed98e371a9d2af229b9bf9ea2f1f029de44b69

Day 3 – Tarbert to near Kilmartin: https://www.strava.com/activities/1690675904/embed/fdb8a418210b30123208ab1b69698b83e13e6a57

Day 4 – Final push to Oban: https://www.strava.com/activities/1691542197/embed/7dcef46ea6300e2ec74ecaa91896bdbb2398984d

Due to time constraints we didn’t complete all of the Wild About Argyll Trail, cutting out a few sections such as the loop around Dunoon and Kilberry, but we added on a trip to the Knapdale Forest Beaver trial, and had a very enjoyable and very much flatter ride alongside the Crinan canal. Here’s a picture sketching out complete route.

Helensburgh to Oban

Helensburgh to Oban

We decided not to take any camping stoves and cooking equipment with us, opting instead for cold food and pub meals along the way; this proved to be a wise choice and lightened the load.  Instead of bivvying we took tents, fearful of the midges; this also proved to be a wise choice. The midges were less of a nuisance than they have been on my previous bike trips to Scotland, but still voracious, as were the ‘Cleggs’, which we were warned about by a local and later learned are horseflies. The Cleggs landed a few bites, especially on long climbs when you don’t notice them landing on your legs till they bite you…ouch.

The scenery throughout the trail was pretty breathtaking, mixing forest and moorland, following the coast and cutting up over large hills, before plummeting down to small towns and villages.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced weather in Scotland quite like it. In 2013, in a similar area whilst cycling round the coast of Britain, I experienced about a week of horizontal rain. We only had about half a day’s worth of intermittent showers, and sunshine for the rest of the time. One of the challenges started to be finding enough water to drink it was so hot, especially after a long climb. I carried three water bottles on my bike, having installed an extra cage just before the trip, and it was just about enough to keep me going between stops. Luckily there are cafes and pubs to refill at, as well as the occasionally outdoor tap courtesy of friendly locals.

View across the bay from Lochgoilhead

View across the bay from Lochgoilhead

We stopped for a pint at the Goil Inn after a very exciting downhill section, during which I’d had to quickly learn the art of dodging crash inducing pebbles and boulders, and how to balance the bike round steep corners. Flat stones on top of other stones really don’t do you any favours at high-speed, although the oversized tyres on my Trek 1120 gave me welcomed extra traction.

I loved the trails that sweep down off the hills onto hard-baked earthen trails underneath the trees, banking round corners and getting a run up to the next climb. Such a contrast to the Norfolk countryside. We camped next to the seashore in Ardentinny on the first night, literally riding into an excellent spot we had no idea was there. The only slightly disconcerting sight was that of Coulport across the waters, the storage and loading facility for the UK’s Trident programme.

The following day we road up over the pass to the Whistlefield Inn, a steep climb for first thing in the morning, before descending at high speed down to Loch Eck. We passed Puck’s Glen but didn’t climb up to visit it, having taken a slightly wrong turning earlier on; somewhere to go back to when I’m next up that way. After a very decent bacon sandwich at Sheila’s Diner near Rashfield we took the trail up the other side of Loch Eck, before cutting up over the hills, then down the hills, then up some more hills, before finally making it to Portavadie. Navigating was slightly tricky on some parts of this, however we could fall back on the GPX coordinates on Ian’s phone when the ordnance survey map got confusing.

The cycling on this section was hard going but worth it.  Some really long climbs and remote forestry sections where we were on our own aside from flocks of sheep and the occasional deer. The only downside was sometimes the surface was a little too rough to go down at speed, due to the quantity of loose stones that had been put down for the forestry trucks.

We wild camped next to Portavadie after enjoying a cold beer or two in the marina; we might have looked slightly scruffy but it was very pleasant sitting outside looking at the boats.

Sunday morning saw us take the ferry over to Tarbert, where we enjoyed a Scottish fry up and restocked on a few supplies before heading North to the Crinan canal. Our legs were feeling somewhat tired after an intense first two days, so we decided on an easier day, taking in the Crinan Canal and Knapdale Forest Beaver Trial.

From Crinan we rode North to Kilmartin, following the valley and stopping to look at the cairns, burial mounds and standing stones. We had a wee dram of whisky and poured a libation for for the spirits, just to be on the safe side. There’s a good pub in Kilmartin, a perfect stopping point for a meal before finding somewhere to camp. The churchyard is also well worth a look, being full of old gravestones, some of which are carved into semblances of armoured men and swords. Ian found what are probably a few ancestors buried in there.

We weren’t entirely sure where we were going to camp but found Carnasserie Castle a few kilometres up the trail, which made for another excellent stopover. It was nice relaxing on the battlements, away from the midges, enjoying the views back down the valley and imagining what it was like centuries ago.

With the sun out again we decided to push for Oban on Monday, to allow for a day off on Tuesday before heading back down South. I was in more familiar territory now having holidayed up here several times over the years, but never quite in this weather.

From Carnasserie Castle we pedalled to Ardfern, before cutting up and over the trail to Craobh Haven, then round to Kilmelford. The route then takes you alongside Loch Melfort to Degnish, where you take the trail over towards Seil Island. We diverted from the Wild About Argyll Trail at this point, over the Bridge over the Atlantic, to explore the island and Easdale.

The route from Easdale to Oban involved a bit of road, before we were able to skirt inland and round the back through forest, before descending into the port. We passed a series of curious wooden fellas on the latter part of our journey.

We stayed in a very reasonable hostel on our last night, before exploring Kerrera Island on foot the following day. There’s a ferry from Oban to Kerrera, and a good walk round the island – think was about 15 km, with an excellent eco type cafe to visit at the other end of the island.

Kerrera Marina - when I grow up I want a yacht

Kerrera Marina – when I grow up I want a yacht

After 4 days on the bike, and a saddle I’m not used to, it was very pleasant to have a walk instead of pedalling.

After chilling out all day we picked up our bikes from the hostel and caught the train from Oban to Glasgow; a very scenic journey, during which the heavens opened and it rained – excellent timing. Then it was a simple matter of cycling the short distance across Glasgow to get the sleeper train back to London, with a side trek for a quick pint.

I had time for a quick pedal round London in the morning, before getting the train back up to Norwich. The cycle highways on London are excellent!

Overall my Trek 1120 was a pleasure to ride, performing excellently off-road, and with ample room for packing kit in the innovative rack system. I need to tweak a couple of spokes to fix a slight wheel buckle, but aside from that nothing broke. The seat dropper post is a great feature, giving you excellent stability when you need it, however I’m going to have to get the next size up for a more comfortable ride, due to my long legs, and I might replace the saddle with a Brooks Cambium or similar. I was slightly worried the oversized tyres would lead to too much rolling resistance, however with the bigger wheels this didn’t prove to be an issue, and it was definitely a lot of fun bouncing round the Scottish hills; it goes over anything, hence a friend christening it ‘The Tractor’ rather than ‘The Beast’, which was my first choice. Looking forward to taking it on more back packing adventures soon.

As for the Wild About Argyll Trail, I’d definitely recommend it as a bike packing route; a superb ride but not for the faint-hearted. For more info on the trail, and other great routes in Scotland I have yet to try, check out the bike packing Scotland website: http://bikepackingscotland.com

 

Brake the Cycle

A couple of weeks ago I came across Brake the Cycle, a touring company that organise adventures combining bicycles, caring about the planet, eco-communities and permaculture, with helping individuals find a new healthier and happier path in life. What better way to do that than on a bike? In short it’s all the sort of thing I’m passionate about, in trying to practise a more balanced, sustainable, and connected to nature lifestyle.

Here’s a video from their website that’s really making me look forward to touring again a bit later this year; I’m hoping to pedal down the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland.

You can check out there website here – www.brakethecycle.xyz

If you’re thinking about giving cycle touring a go, but a bit nervous and would like to do it with a group of like-minded individuals, then I’d recommend checking them out. They organise tours in the UK, such as Lands End to John O’Groats and an Odyssey in Wales, to pedalling round Spain or Greece. And they’ll carry your luggage for you! A great way to see new places, make new friends, and experience the joys of cycle touring in a sustainable way.

I recently wrote a guest blog post for them, which you can read here – www.brakethecycle.xyz/single-post/bikearoundBritain

Incidentally I have no commercial connection to this website, I just really like what they’re trying to do and may well get a few friends to join me on one of their tours.

I’ve also copied in the blog post below, as I really enjoyed writing this one, and want to keep it for posterity.

Bike around Britain by James Harvey
Riding a bike. I don’t think I could do without it now. I get grouchy if I haven’t cycled for a couple of days. If I have to use my car to commute the day is definitely worse for it. On my 10 mile ride to work I see people stuck in their vehicles, looking grumpy, frustrated, bored, and disconnected from the world outside their sterile, sealed metal boxes.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if more people used their bike to get to work? There are so many benefits to be gained from a regular pedal: mental and physical health, fitness, saving money, and less pollution. It’s actually quicker in towns, and you can eat more cake without worrying too much about the calories. You’re closer to the natural world too — not separate from it like so many people seem to be these days. As we move into Spring and everything starts waking up there’s more to see, smell, listen to and experience whilst pedalling.

Snowdrop covered bank

Take the path less travelled

Cycling several times a week also means that when it comes to your next cycle tour your legs are better prepared for it, although it’s one of those hobbies where you really can get fit on the job. I started cycle touring properly in 2013, when a major life event made me re-evaluate what’s important. I took some time out and decided, fairly randomly, that I’d cycle around the coast of Britain. Why wait until you retire to start adventuring? You never know what’s going to happen. If you have the chance to do something different, to pursue something out-of-the ordinary you’ve always wanted to do, then go for it, ‘brake the cycle’ and take that first step out of your front door. Every step after that is easier. One of my favourite quotes, from Henry Rollins reflects all this:

‘No such thing as spare time
No such thing as free time
No such thing as down time
All you got is life time. Go!’

I didn’t especially know what I was doing when I set off round the coast. I bought a bike I’d been reliably informed was decent for touring, as well as camping equipment I could fit on it, and a whole  host of other bits and pieces I thought I might need. Once I’d packed my panniers I mounted my trusty steed, and gently tumbled onto the grass outside my house. It appeared I might have to cut down on what were going to be my worldly possessions for the next three months. That was the start of realising you really don’t need much to be happy. In fact, from what I’ve observed, the more people have the less happy they often are. You meet a lot of people when touring, whether it be in Britain, or in more remote places (for us) such as Albania, Scandinavia or Turkey. The friendliest and most content people I’ve met are often those that seem to have the least, from a material possession point of view; I’d argue they probably have the much more from a spiritual and non-material angle.

Starting from Norwich and heading to Lowestoft, on the East coast of Britain, before turning North, getting fitter as I went. I almost immediately had a crash on a Norfolk coastal path, when I discovered loaded touring bikes don’t cope well with sand. This wouldn’t be the last ‘stunt’ of the tour.

It didn’t really take very long to get to Scotland, however it took a me a disproportionate amount of time to get round the coast of that glorious country. There are so many ins-and-outs, up-and-downs, sideways then back up bits. Thankfully on a coastal tour it’s quite hard to get lost, all you have to do is keep the sea on one side, and in Scotland there aren’t a lot of roads to choose from when you get beyond Edinburgh. Another Scottish bonus is you can wild camp as long as you’re sensible and respectful, so finding a place to rest wasn’t hard.

Wild camping on the shores of Loch Fyne

Wild camping on the shores of Loch Fyne

I always get asked what my favourite bits of a tour are, and it’s often hard to pick one. I know that the journey is definitely more important that the destination — the latter often being a bit of an anti-climax after all the adventures along the way. On my 2013 Bike around Britain tour I can definitely say Scotland was my favourite bit, aside from the midges which will eat you alive if you’re not careful. The coastline is amazing, especially the West Coast, and then there’s Orkney where I immediately felt at home,  and Skye and Mull which are quite different from the mainland. The wildness of Cape Wrath where I camped next to the lighthouse and ate fresh wild Atlantic salmon was amazing, and I’ll never forget cycling over the Bealach na Ba pass from Applecross, up the steepest ascent in the UK, then descending carefully down the other side with my brakes smoking. That’s feeling alive.

Bealach na Ba

Bealach na Ba

Eventually it was time to leave Scotland and cross back into England, via Gretna Green. That in itself was a culture shock after weeks in relative wilderness; coach loads of Japanese and Chinese tourists greeted me as I pedalled through, and I suddenly had to contend with roundabouts and traffic lights again, a rarity in the highlands. Then it was on to Wales which turned out to be, whilst beautiful, very wet and windy. In fact it mostly rained for all of Wales, but you get used to that kind if thing whilst cycle touring, as well as dirt and mud; my theory is your skin is waterproof, so all good. A few local cyclists I met on the road bought me the odd meal, or a pint, which kept motivation levels up.

When you’re on a long cycle tour you’re much more in touch with the natural environment you’re in, especially if you’re camping most of the time. You become attuned to the daylight hours as well as the weather, and are definitely very much a part of nature, rather than disconnected from it. On your bike you spot things you’d never see in a car, and meet people you’d never normally speak to. They’re interested because you’re on a loaded touring bike and they want to know where you’ve been and where you’re going ; this can often lead to free meals! You rest when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry, and take a diversion to see something interesting if the notion takes you. I’d challenge anyone not to feel less-stressed after a week or two of that.

 

Cycle touring - enjoy spectacular sunsets in nature's embrace

Cycle touring – enjoy spectacular sunsets in nature’s embrace

The funny thing was as soon as I rode to the other side of the Severn Bridge it stopped raining. I could look back into Wales and it was still cloudy on the other side of the Severn, however I was now in sunshine. Wales is damp, lovely country, but damp.

The South West was another highlight, although the hills were steeper than in any other part of the tour; I didn’t have to get off and push until I got to Devon. I rode to Land’s End on a wonderful sunny day, completing a rather long and unconventional John O’Groats to Lands End (‘Jogle’) trip. I laid back in the heather and dozed for a bit, listening to the waves crashing against the rocks far below. The sound of the sea, my constant companion for the three months of my  tour, is always relaxing and trance-inducing.

Lands End - listening to the sea

Lands End – listening to the sea

Along the South Coast it got a lot busier, but remained entertaining, with the odd ferry to catch over inlets and estuaries. There was more regular supply of ice-cream, and friends joined me along the way to experience a bit of life on the road.  After the peace of Scotland the South East was the opposite. A more frantic pace of life as well as an increase in traffic and prices, and more opportunities to get lost. As with everywhere folks still often wanted to say hello and find out what I was doing, or to offer hospitality.

Helford - ran out of road, waiting for ferry boat

Helford – ran out of road, waiting for ferry boat

Heading North across the Thames I joined the Tour de Latitude, taking a diversion to cycle to the music festival. It proved to be an excellent decision, a chance to catch up with a few friends and ease tired muscles, before heading back to the coast to finish the circuit back in Lowestoft, and home to Norwich.

I learnt so much about myself and the UK on that tour. Since then I’ve continued to go on adventures on my bike, including a six month pedal around Europe in 2015, taking in Nordkapp, Tarifa and Istanbul. But there really isn’t any need to leave  Britain to get away from it all, reconnect with nature, and try something new. We have so much on our own doorstep to enjoy, learn about and be part of.

You have a lot of time to mull things over whilst you’re pedalling. In the last two hundred years we’ve grown more and more apart from the natural world, somehow forgetting about it, or believing we’re above other species on this planet. There’s a constant pressure for growth, whether that be population, industrial, agricultural or economic, which is at odds with the finite resources we have access to, as well as our own wellbeing. I can’t help wondering if a lot of the mental health issues we experience today are caused by the realisation, by all of us at some level, that things aren’t right at the moment. Getting on your bike, whether that be for you daily commute to work or to take up touring, is a great way to start reconnecting with the world, to start working out what’s important, and to bring more contentment and satisfaction into your life.

People always seem to ask me what I’m going to do or where I’m going to go next? I ask, where are you going next?

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

James Harvey is a keen cyclist and advocate of two wheels for wellbeing. Find out more about his 2013 tour (with routes) here: www.bikearoundbritain.com. You can find James sharing his thoughts on the wonderfully titled www.selfpropelled.life and follow home on Twitter here @jam_har

 

Pedaling into 2018

Recently I’ve been pondering the terms ‘growth’, and ‘progress’, when they’re used to describe our aspirations as a race, in the developed ‘Western’ world anyway. It’s weird how we seem to think of progress and growth as building more, and consuming more of our finite resources. Is that really progress? It doesn’t seem to make that many people more content with their lot, or healthier, mentally or physically. If anything it just seems to create more problems.

We always have to pursue economic growth, but surely infinite economic growth is impossible when you have finite resources, and an economy that is based on using them. I think a different model is needed if we’re to really progress and grow as a species.

I’ll write a more structured blog on this in the near future. I might include some thoughts on the new Norwich Northern Distributor road, which as far as I can tell is just there to open up the countryside to more development, more ‘growth’. It’ll mean the closure of at least two of the roads I cycle down to get to and from work, which will no doubt mean more traffic channelled on to fewer roads, with more drivers getting annoyed with ‘bloody cyclists’. I’ve tried to find out some more information about new cycle paths the council might have planned to help cyclists get into Norwich safely, but haven’t found anything concrete yet. I fear I may have to pedal a slightly longer and more congested route, but will reserve judgement pending further investigations.

Rather than saying any more on the subject now, I thought I’d share a few photos from my January cycling, either from the commute, or the occasional excursion in search of pie and cake. A lot of people seem reluctant to get out during the winter months, however with the right kit it’s absolutely fine, and often more peaceful on the quieter roads. One just has to stay alert for any icy patches; might have done a couple of inadvertent stunts recently.

It’s great seeing the countryside change throughout the year. The tree branches are bare at the moment, but will soon start to bud, shutting away secrets that are currently in plain site.

And it’s time for snowdrops to appear in abundance. Lots of them on my route to work. I’m looking forward to seeing the bluebells once Spring arrives.

I pedalled home from work illuminated by the light from the blue super-moon the other day, an impressive site. My new camera phone took surprisingly good pics of it; I can use one of these for a cover on one of my short stories.

I’ve set a target of 5,000 miles (8,000km) cycling this year, which should be possible seeing as I regularly pedal 100 miles a week just on the commute. I’ll probably go for another tour in the summer or autumn for a couple of weeks, perhaps heading up to Derbyshire and over to Wales; route to be confirmed, maybe Europe instead. In the meantime I’ve been getting out at the weekend a bit, most recently up to Holt to grab a pasty and cake from Byfords. Bywords is a must visit for any hungry cyclist in the area.

My route from Salhouse across to Holt was on very quiet country roads, taking in the now closed RAF Coltishall, somewhere I don’t think I’ve been since I was a few months old (felt quite weird). It has rained an awful lot recently, meaning many of the roads have large puddles, or lakes as was the case below. I took the plunge and managed to forge through to the other side, about 30 metres away, without sinking into a pothole.

Just how far does the 'puddle' go on for?

Just how far does the ‘puddle’ go on for?

I think I might have to create an album of the churches I pass whilst out on my bike. I’m not particularly religious, but do like churches; their architecture and the often peaceful atmosphere surrounding them is attractive. These two are close to where I live, although there are dozens more, a legacy of Norfolk’s rich farming past and all the landowners competing via the medium of church building.

To close, here are a few cartoons I came across recently and thought were spot on, courtesy of @cartoonralph (you can follow them on Twitter). I think they accurately portray how disconnected we’ve become from nature, when we should be part of it, not set ourselves aside or above (there’s a blog to be done on deep ecology at some point too). The centre of the universe one is too true when it comes to our sense of entitlement as a race.

Enjoy the winter months and keep on pedalling!