A Happy New Year

So the first week of the new year is over. For some it has been a gentle introduction back to the world of work after a bit too much food and drink. For others today marks the first day back to the routine of work. And in returning to work we will meet up with folk and wish them a happy new year.

It always strikes me as a good if unusual greeting. Unusual since in England and Wales there is no such custom. And good? People who give such a greeting do so with a warmth and a positivity that is less common the other 51 weeks of the year. It is a connection at a human level and a little bit of positive energy in what can be one of the bleakest months of the year, something I appreciate and hope never to take for granted.

I would normally go on at this point to talk about new year resolutions. However most of what I believe about them has previously been blogged. For me, I have made few new year resolutions, 2018 was filled with DIY and moving and exhaustion. For 2019 I plan to  invest more time in smelling the roses  settling into the new house, taking stock.

So as I end my first blog of 2019, instead of sending you the traditional greeting, may I wish you a healthy and peaceful New Year.

Finally a big thank you to all who have followed my blogs in the last year. Your engagement helps keep me writing and I always appreciate your feedback.

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Restarting

After a summer spent on DIY projects it is time to get back to my exercise. For me the critical factor is having a set routine, something that I have blogged about previously. However with a longer commute finding both the time and energy has proved challenging. At the weekend I decided today would be a good time to restart with an early morning swim at my new local pool.

I confess I tried to come up with some excuse while sipping my tea in bed, but excuse eluded me. It wasn’t much of a swim, just eighteen laps but there were a couple of moments that were interesting.

The average age of the swimmers must have been over sixty. One snippet of conversation heard from a man in his sixties “I’m a little bit late this morning, I overslept”. It was still dark outside and the pool clock showed 7.15. I was impressed. Later I reflected that it seems like many there had a routine, and had a social connection, witnessed by the group of ladies sat down waiting for their friend post swim.

And a final comment overheard on the bus afterwards “well the exercise seems to be helping”. In a world where the negative makes the headlines and a grey morning can develop a grey mood, it’s good to hear, see and, most especially, do these things.

All very positive and while I could have swam more, it’s a start. And a great way to begin the week.

The Last Day of Summer

DSC_0356So that’s another holiday nearing an end, a holiday filled with hills, big landscapes, smatterings of geology, good food and moments simply sitting and absorbing our surroundings. After yesterday’s long walk it is time to recuperate, rest the legs and enjoy the warmth. Yesterday saw me wearing my winter hat, today shorts and t shirt. A great end to – officially at least – a great summer. Putting distractions and news of the world aside.

And putting such distractions aside normally is an effort, a challenge. This week however has been different – without internet connection for a whole week, no news except for the daily measured dose on radio and TV, no e-mails or twitter or online entertainment, I have been strangely blessed. Nothing except one’s own means of entertainment, a textually heavy tome on the Vikings, a box of scrabble, C’s company and my own senses.

Sitting outside our modest chalet on the bench in the sunshine, I’m aware of the wind rustling the rowan and pine trees, the varied smells of plants and flowers, the warmth of the sun on bare skin, and the peacefulness of it all, somehow emphasised by the distant rumble of passing traffic and the sight of con trails in the sky. After a busy summer it feels odd to just sit down for a day, a break from the list of chores, of decorating and office work, of being in motion.

We so rarely allow ourselves the opportunity to sit and be still that when we do we may feel ill at ease, sensing something should be done, something needs our attention. And yet if we don’t take such time, how can we truly appreciate such moments such as this, the last day of summer, gifts us? And a gift it is, knowing full well that in six weeks the days will be too short for me to cycle to the office, that in another six weeks we will be turning our thoughts to Christmas and the last gasps of 2018.

Somehow, sensing how quickly time passes and the seasons come and go, fuels the feeling of rushing through the days, weeks, the pace of time out of our control. Sitting on this bench however slows that sense, gives some perspective, creates a moment to pause. To pause and not to reflect, instead pausing in order to breathe a bit deeper, think a bit clearer and slow things down. In a world full of instant news and instant opinions, texts and tweets, e-mails and interactions, I feel at times like the salmon fighting its way upstream against the flow. My destination is the same as the salmon’s – a quiet deep pool, for rest.

And so back to passing time. Soon it will be time for afternoon tea and cake, then it will cool down and I will have to leave my summer lit bench. But for now let’s enjoy the moment, delight in being alive and outside on this, the last day of summer.

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.

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.

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“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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