A New Day

I have recently been surrounded it seems by ill health. Several friends and family have had health problems and I have presented a sympathetic ear whilst listening to the details. Amongst the details of the condition is their outlook. I want to use the word attitude but we use the word so often in a negative sense it is less helpful. So what do I mean when I say outlook?

A person’s outlook is their view of how their medical condition is and will affect them both here and going forward. Such an outlook can be usually broken down into two groups. The positive and the negative.

The positive sees ill health as a staging point, not a destination. It is temporary and a challenge. Whenever I have strained a muscle or am ill I reflect back on the path to recovery a previous time. That doesn’t reduce the suffering but it puts it into context. And I believe it can actually accelerate the road to recovery.

The negative focuses solely on the here and now, projecting more of the same misery into the future. It is a never ending cycle of woe. And to be honest I struggle to be sympathetic for long! Such an attitude closes off the possibility of improvement and equally important the possibility that they can do something themselves to improve their condition. This summer I have been privileged to witness the power of positive thinking.

Someone I know has suffered from osteoporosis for several years. In the spring they were hospitalised by the pain in their back. The usual tests were done and after the second admission a picture of what was happening slowly emerged. Through all the pain and sleepless nights they tried to keep positive.

Once a diagnosis was made some two months later, they actively began to ask questions about what could be done and what could they do to improve things. Physio, exercises, posture, cushion seating were some of the answers. Several weeks of exercise went by with no change. And then one day they had half an hour pain free. Over several weeks these moments of relief from pain grew. Then one day they realised that if they were to do the exercises as the pain returned, it would go. Soon they were having hours pain free, still doing their exercises, still doing their daily walk.

They phoned me the week before last in great spirits, they had had five complete days without any pain.

We should never underestimate the power of the mind, so little is talked about it in relation to poor health and yet it is a key element of recovery.

And finally, where am I now with all my own aches and pains? I realise that physio exercises will help me to recover, that positive attitude is central and that you can learn from other people’s experiences  you simply need to look carefully and listen fully.

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Ten Percent

DSC_0334It’s another beautiful,  sunny summer’s  morning as I mount my bike. Once on the main road it is a short cycle to the first downhill section. Freewheel for almost a mile, enjoying the speed and lack of effort. Soon it is time to push up the first hill then a downhill glide and finally the last hill up. From here on it gets busier – cars, lorries, pedestrians and fellow cyclists. All competing for the same piece of tarmac, all competing for my attention. After two more freewheel sections I am done. Safely arrived at the office once more.

As regular readers of my blog may recall, I started cycling to work last month. It has been an enjoyable and educative experience. I have enjoyed the flat and downhill sections and appreciate the exercise I am getting when crunching down through the gears and pedalling, and puffing, up the hills.

I have also seen a couple of examples of what I will describe as poor road use. The driver that pulls out without seeing me and my reflective top, the pedestrian crossing the road without looking, deaf to my cycle bell, and the cyclists casually riding through red lights.

All too often we can waste time on the things that go wrong in life. The fact is that no more than ten percent of my trips have been affected by poor road users. In contrast, each day drivers pass me with care and consideration, many cyclists use the road responsibly, and the majority of pedestrians wait for the lights to change before crossing. I have had snatched conversations with fellow cyclists, pleasant interactions with drivers and pedestrians. Edinburgh is, year on year, becoming a more cycle-friendly and cycle-populated space. None of the above doesn’t negate from the fact you have to watch out for the ten percent, after all a confrontation with half a ton of metal moving at speed will not end well. It is a matter of perspective.

And I feel in a  privileged position using the roads and pavements of Edinburgh as a driver, pedestrian, cyclist and bus passenger. Seeing the same space through different lenses. It is a rare thing, to be able to see things from multiple points of view. So much media and social media is based on disagreement, on how one person’s opinion is superior to the next. We are forgetting how to hear another opinion, to disagree with someone with civility, with a sense of calm. And so I revel in my ability to see these spaces as I do, knowing how rare it is.

And so to all those careful and considerate road users I say thank you. You have made my first month of cycling very pleasant. And let’s all remember to celebrate the ninety percent of life.

More 2

“So what are you going to do now that you have climbed all the munros?”

That seems to be the general question I get when I tell folk that I’ve compleated them. My standard response has been around the seventy or so munros C has to do. And yet somehow my answer  has seemed incomplete. And now I realise why.

The munros is a list of all Scottish mountains over three thousand
feet above sea level, with height differences of a certain minimum between summits. I have previously blogged about coming out of the munroist closet and how for years I fought being labelled as such.

The past three years have been focused on compleation of my munros, ignoring other hills and adventures. In ‘Younger Next Year’  the authors talk about the advantages of having a kedge to keep the focus on doing regular exercise. And in many ways the list of munros has been a wonderful kedge for me. Not only has it kept me fit, it has taken me into parts of the Scottish Highlands that otherwise I would never have experienced. But in describing the munros as a kedge is helpful. Let me explain.

A kedge traditionally is an anchor that would be used to inch forward a sailing vessel when there was no wind. A sailor would throw it out in front as far as they could and then the crew would, using a windlass, pull the vessel forward.  This is then repeated time and again. In exercise terms a kedge would be setting a goal such as a race or a particular event and using that to inspire you to become fitter. None of it is easy or quick but you do get to move forward.

I started blogging as someone who had taken up running later in life. I did a 10 kilometres race as a kedge and later went on to do two half marathons in consecutive years. All helpful kedges. But I enjoyed the running for the running sake. And I still run though not having a race in sight.

And so it will be with my hillwalking. I will do some of C’s munros and sit and admire the buttercups whilst he does others. Just like I am doing today when writing this blog, at the bealach (or pass) between two hills.

Anyway, that’s the plan, to have a holiday from kedges and lists and enjoy the hills in their own right. Maybe do some with a bit of a twist. Oddly enough I experienced two examples whilst sitting down on this bealach*  The first were a couple of lads who had pushed their mountain bikes up to the bealach and were then going to push them to the summit before cycling back down. The second was someone who had done a night walk earlier that week across three hills in Glen Affric. Whilst the first example does not appeal, the second one does.

Must close, C is returning from hill number one for today, so soon time for lunch then we are both off to the next munro. But before I do let me leave you with a throw away remark I overheard in a cafe last week.

 

Once you have mountains in your blood you don’t want to let go.

 

(* or maybe serendipity struck again)

Unexpectedly Good: A Pilgrimage

I hadn’t done much research, merely knowing the place name. I first had the notion to pay it a visit in 1990, cycling around the Highlands, but didn’t know the place name then. Today, with C off doing some of his munros, I thought I would pop over and pay my respects, see what the attraction of the place was.

Armed with a 1:25,000 OS map I parked up at the forestry track, seeing the place name on  a discrete sign. A sign – as it turned out – to be the only one showing the way. Somehow it felt apt.

By the 1970s the otter population in most of the United Kingdom was in free-fall – while numbers in some Scottish counties remained healthy, for many counties in England and Wales the otter population appeared to be nil [1]  Zero. A void.  Back in the 1950s otter hunts (think fox hunting but with a different prey) were in decline, the people who led and participated in these hunts seeing for themselves the steep fall in numbers.  Ultimately, at their own request, otter hunting was banned. Still the numbers declined. Later, science showed much of the problem was down to the pesticide chemicals running off the land.

Somehow the story of the otters’ fate gained the public’s attention. “Tarka The Otter” was a firm childhood favourite amongst several generations of readers. However in the 1960s a series of books were published that portrayed the otter as a wilder creature, as wild and lonely as the landscape it inhabited, in this case the islands and coastline of the west highlands of Scotland. Gavin Maxwell’s book “Ring of Bright Water” is by some nature conservationists credited as playing a key role in building public opinion, and public support, in favour of saving the otter from extinction……

A series of bends in the forestry track obscured any view of the sea, and after several junctions I got to a point just above the bay. Getting down to it was a different matter. And then I remembered C saying he had been told of a path down by the burn through the woods. After a bit of searching I found it. Scots Pine mingled with birch, gave way to bog myrtle and ferns and brambles. Finally, within twenty feet of the shoreline, I broke off the path onto the coast, the path having wended its way in a wonderful, seemingly pointless fashion down the hill. Again, the way this way had been hidden felt apt, it felt just right.

The first impression was of silence and light. No gull noise, no traffic noise, simply the poppling of the sea’s fringes. And the light. The near-white foreshore reflected light, contrasted the colours it framed, of the blue sea, the grey and black rocks, the green distant islands and mountains.  I found a dry rock and sat down, soaking up the silence, alert and searching. Would I see an otter?

Time passed. A seal popped its head above the water’s surface, swimming safely some distance offshore. I moved on, exploring the small bays, crossing a low isthmus to an island, marvelling at the peacefulness, thinking what a fantastic landscape it would be for otters. Soon it was time to move on, the tide had turned and the island was soon to become an island once more, cutting me off from the mainland.

Later, after lunch, I explored some more. Saw the rundown cottage, discovered a well-trod path – signs of more traffic than this morning’s route, then the large rock denoting the final resting place of Gavin Maxwell, placed it is said on the part of the ruined house where his desk once stood. Today there is no sign of a desk here, of a house, of humans once living here. What remains are the open sea, the enclosed bays, the sparkling foreshore and a hint that this is otter land.

Ring of Bright Water tells  of the taming and nurturing of Edal, Gavin Maxwell’s first otter, and the trials of living in such a remote location. The author chose to call the place in his book Camusfearna, so as not to encourage tourists, disturbing the peacefulness. After all, it is in such quiet lands that otters may be found. And it gladdened me to see the place still so well left alone, no cafe or hide or interpretative panel. Simply the landscape and seascape speaking for itself.

Today, the restoration of the otter is complete. In 2011 a survey found two otters living in the county of Kent, the final county of the United Kingdom to see a return of lutra lutra. Banning otter hunts, certain pesticides, together with improvements in water quality of rivers have all played large parts in what is one of the earliest examples of successful British conservation. And of course the otters themselves, in their own quiet and secretive ways have rediscovered rivers and burns, lochs and lakes, coastlines and islands, themselves. A fitting tribute indeed to a protector and writer of otters.

 

[1] Biological Journal of the Linneun Society ( 1989), 38: 61 -69 The changing otter population of Britain 1700-1989 D. J. JEFFERIES

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More?

“Can I have some more please sir.”

“More” cried the Beadle. “More?”

Something has been puzzling me for a while now. With more and more statistics of levels of obesity in Scotland among the adult and children populations I have been trying to work out why. Some blame a lack of education, others poverty, others less convincing causes. But for me they all seem somehow flawed, describing more the process rather than the cause. And then the other day I had my epiphany.

I started this blog with a quote from Oliver the musical. It deals with child poverty and bureaucracy,  themes Dickens wrote extensively about. But it also captures the essential magic of food in the eyes of the hungry.

In the musical the above scene leads on to the number ‘food glorious food’ . When you look back at middle ages celebrations involved feasting, eating huge volumes or expensive food. Yuletide, harvest festivals, wedding banquets, funeral wakes, all these put food in the centre of celebrations. Why I ask myself? Why?

Because of the rarity of plenty in previous generations. That’s why. To share food, to show generosity to the guest was a sign of good character. The unspoken context was of having famine whispering around the corner, perhaps haunting family stories.

And whilst a clan, family or group of friends may have celebrated with a feast they all knew that the following day would bring the routine meal, the sustenance diet. And to be clear when I use the word diet I am talking diet due to circumstances not due to an article in a glossy magazine.

So where am I going with this? The comparison to nowadays is the answer. Nowadays you can eat a feast as big as your stomach and as much as you can afford. We live in a land of food plenty. Obscene quantities stacked in supermarkets, translating so easily to over consumption and obesity. Without pausing. Again why? The answer was my epiphany. People overeat because they can, because culturally, historically there is no pattern of behaviour in holding back when food is plentiful.

There is also a hidden reason, which we have to turn to chemistry to uncover. Now I am no scientist so may get some of the details wrong. Anyhow. If you eat processed foods which tend to be high in ratios of fat and sugar then the way that your body digests such foods creates chemicals in your body that shout feast time! Encouraging you to eat more. It is no accident that manufacturers use sugars and fats to encourage more purchases.

So there we have it, my epiphany on why this nation is plunging into obesity and poor health and billions are spent supporting folk in the NHS system who could choose a healthier path. It explains why it is so difficult to educate, to stick with a particular diet.

‘More boy? More!’ Perhaps one day we will see the choice, the new age in which we live. The alternatives are too bleak to dwell upon.

More? No thanks, I’ve had sufficient.

Understanding Steps

After an early breakfast and final checks we all loaded up into the cars. We were in good spirits, J cracking jokes about previous hill walks, C responding with reminiscences. Me, quiet with contemplation of the day ahead. Soon we were parked up and after the usual faff (no names) we were off. Today’s hill involved a long walk in and a single Munro. The track was a good one and after an hour we arrived at the ruined settlement, time for a break. The sun was out and with the temperature rising, the climb up from the ruins was slow and sweaty. Another hour passed and then time for elevenses. Then onwards. Up a short rise to the mile long ridge and then to the final steep ascent to the summit, all – or rather almost all-familiar to me. Except for the final five minutes walk. In many ways the most important bit of the walk. You see C and I had reconnoitred this route two years previously.

Someone once wrote that often life is only understood backwards; as time and life moves forwards the direction and significance of life is often lost. When looked at in retrospect, it becomes transparent. And so it was for the series of events and connections that led me up to the final five minutes walk to the summit. Just like any walk, it was a series of small and big steps that got me to that day. My final Munro.

Step one, if memory serves me correct, was Irene seeing an advert for a local Ramblers Group in a library. Step two was Neil going along and joining it. Step three was the fact that it was fun and interesting which led on to step four, Irene and myself joining the group. Step five – and to me even now one of the most significant steps – was meeting Bryan, whose kindness and humour helped a spotty, quiet teenager complete many walks along a hillside as the winter daylight faded. If it had not been for Bryan, that teenager may never have continued the long walks, often struggling to catch up with those at the front. And somehow amongst those walks in the Welsh valleys, that teenager’s love for the hills began. Step six saw that teenager book himself on his first holiday on his own – a Ramblers holiday walking Exmoor. Of the group of ten, only two did all the walks that week, that teenager being one. By this stage the hill walking bug was truly caught. University took me off to Edinburgh where I joined the mountaineering club and so at step seven I encountered my first Munro.

Step eight was – some eight or so years later – realising that I had done a few of these Munro’s, buying the book and marking them up. And so for a few years I quietly collected them. By the time I returned to Scotland I had marked up the first hundred. And so I could have pootled along, doing a few here and there. But then Donald recommended I talk to Janice who was considering restarting hill-walking and the next step (nine) in my hill-walking story began. The first walk was in the Borders and involved a steep hillside, snow and some swearing I recall but led us over time to the sun-kissed slopes of Skye. And then the final step, the tenth, occurred when I convinced Colin to join us on a walk up by Dalwhinnie, almost fourteen years ago. And the rest – they say – is history.

And so back to the last five minutes walk. The cloud had come and gone in the previous hour but we had views as we walked along the final section, the group of friends and family gathering ahead as, just like that spotty teenager some thirty-four years ago, I walked at the back of the group. The final twenty feet, a musical moment, a clamber to the cairn and then photos, handshakes and smiles. It was a good walk and great way to celebrate. And it only took ten steps.

 

Connecting Landscapes

With just two weeks before we are due to go away to celebrate my final munro it was time to get the last troublesome pair ticked off. Despite what some may think I don’t like to tick off munros, there’s usually so much more to a day out in the hills than a tick in the book. In this case there would be three days out in the hills, a day walk in, then the hills and then the day walk out.

As it turned out some of the best times were enjoying the evening sunshine by the tent. The hills themselves were a bit dull to be honest. The landscape was the usual blasted one, blasted by too many deer eating any vegetation, trees few and far between. But we did get to meet a chap on the second hill.

He was from the English south coast, and this was his first time in the Highlands. Nothing particularly noteworthy about that. But he had started his walk at Mallaig, over a hundred miles to the west.  Led by the Great Outdoors Challenge he was walking coast to coast and thought he might as well pop in a couple of munros into the route. Carrying a tent.

As we chatted about his route, memories of glens visited and views stored away came to my mind. He had seen some places still on my wishlist such as the Corryarick pass and when questioned he knew its origins and importance. Here he was on his first trip to the Highlands and he was knitting together a whole series of fantastic landscapes some of which many who live here will never see. At the time of our chat I was stunned. Stunned not just by the route and experience of landscapes but by his achievement.

Afterwards C and I talked more about the man and his adventure. That he was doing so much in the one trip was remarkable but maybe easily understood, after all the Great Outdoors challenge is for people to walk coast to coast across The Scottish highlands. What fascinated me was the impact of eleven days walking through the highlands in near perfect weather could have on someone who had explored Dartmoor but not much further north. Somehow in his understated manner I felt the impact on him. And where the experience would lead him was anyone’s guess.

The following day we broke camp and set off back to the car. Soon we passed a ford and the track westwards that goes down Glen Feshie and on to Blair Atholl. I have seen it on the maps and read about it. However to see it for real, to see the physical connection to the track we walked, the one from Braemar to near Aviemore, was to bring alive some of the great long distance tracks and paths that bind the highlands.

For several years now I had owned a copy of the seminal book on such long distance paths and had occasionally dipped into it. I have previously blogged about how we sometimes stand atop a munro and map out our view, pointing out peaks climbed, islands visited and remote lochs seen only before on a map. Rarely do we see long distance paths and yet they represent another way to engage with and understand the landscape. A more human way since their very existence is a sign of human life having settled in these remote glens.

 

And so the weekend proved to be about connections, connecting with the landscape and those that travel through it, and connecting in a different way with areas previously explored  An interesting weekend.