The importance of woodland in a worrying world…

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin Birth
(Greg Lake ‘I believe in Father Christmas’)

unnamedIt is raining again, a fine misty rain that curls my hair and dampens everything, including my mood. I started this blog post before the additional chaos of a leadership challenge and more Brexit shenanigans, but also before the shooting in Strasbourg, a beautiful city in France, where we have recently settled. I realised this morning, as I sat gazing out into the forest, watching the slow tears of a wet Wednesday that it is harder than ever to see a real meaning in the Christmas holidays this year. In the UK, and in France, extremists on all sides are using politics as a vehicle to undermine fellow feeling, kindness and recognition that we are all inhabitants of one, enormous and very fragile planet. Nationalism rears up, obviously in riots and insidiously in parliament. We must take care of ourselves, and hold on to our values. Unless it seems, you are a Tory politician or a leading Labour member where the lines are blurred and everything is up for grabs. And as for Greg lake, well it was always an anti-Christmas song, and this year it seems we are definitely getting the Christmas we deserve.

So, back to the wonderful woods…

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The Ladybird Book of Trees

We have had two weeks of wet and windy weather here in Brittany and it has turned our wonderful forest into something of an obstacle course. Paths I walked in early summer are now lost under a thick carpet of leaves, once burnished bronze and gold but now slimy and brown, and I turn disorientated along a track leading me into clearings I don’t recognise and trees that, until spring clothes them in green again, all look quite similar. I know my ash from my oak and my beech from my horse chestnut, but that is about the extent of my memory, An endless reference to the Ladybird Book of Trees in my youth has taken me little further than a love of the artist who illustrated it, S.R. Badmin.

Yesterday it was dry, so I ventured out to enjoy the breeze in my hair and the fresh air in my lungs. I found, however, branches strewn across the path and the leaves hiding a multitude of trip hazards. Within metres, I went up to my poor sore ankle in a puddle of water after treading, as I thought, on firm ground. Sadly a thick layer of leaves was disguising said puddle and my mistrust of the carpeted forest floor was deepened ten minutes later, as I skidded on a hidden, huge pile of dog poo. I have become closer to the natural world here than ever before, but no longer am I gazing romantically at the treetops, listening and looking out for wildlife (we still haven’t seen a squirrel…) and instead am looking only downwards at my boring, brown walking boots, fearful of going base over apex, cracking ankle or skull.

I rarely venture off the beaten track on my own now, even with my trusty hound Teddy to keep me company. The shallow streams of summer are gushing torrents marking ridges in the paths as they overflow and take all before them. What passed for bridges just weeks ago are now slippery exercises in tightrope walking and the grasping fingers of fine branches whip across my face and the knobbly toes of the tree roots are eager to snare the unwary and unwatching.

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A korrigan

In the summer, when I wandered into darker places, the primaeval nature of the dense mixed woodland sent a shiver down my spine – it became quieter, less understood and full of the magical folk Breton culture has populated this area with. A rustle, a creak, a flash of colour – nuthatch or a korrigan (a Breton goblin)? That whispering around the stream and the pool amongst the rocks? Was it the wind or a water sprite?

Now the rustle of the leaves has diminished to the soft swish of the firs, and light has poured in, illuminating some of the dark corners and opening up views across the hills. It struck me today that we talk of trees being ‘bare’ and of their ‘naked’ branches’, like arms desperately reaching out to capture those weak rays of sunlight. It is as if by anthropomorphising them, we express our own fear of being abandoned there.

Commonly, a wood in winter is perceived as a cold, hypothermic environment, as wildlife hunkers down to hibernate, or to scrabble for the last energy-filled foods on the forest floor. We ‘trample’ and scrabble over the dying remnants of summer and autumn, and life feels suspended.

It can feel a little random, but I do like to pop a poem into my posts, just to catch you unawares, and perhaps introduce you to work you mightn’t otherwise see. This is a famous one but I always like to re-read it, less for the snowy scene it sets and more for the warmth it exudes. It is by Robert Frost, and I can now, even though we have no snow, appreciate the line ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep’ and a sense of the benign nature of the woods and weather the poet is observing – ‘easy wind and downy flake’. The woods, even on these dark evenings,   are rather more lovely than the world outside them at the moment.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

fungiIn the older and less frequented parts of the forest here in Huelgoat the seasonal hover between life and death seems less evident. Despite the loss of leaves, there is an unexpected depth of green and a darkness that can still envelop the late walker (after 3 O’Clock in the afternoon). The tree trunks are covered to their tops with lichen, a mossy coat that gives them a warm-blooded appearance, at odds with the decay going on around them as winter progresses. Pressing a hand on the trunk fills one with a sense of the animal vitality of trees – borne out by their ability to communicate and their ceaseless chatter amongst themselves. Fir trees swell the ranks of the ancient deciduous woodland, clamouring together, often planted as quick growing timber, shutting light from the forest floor and knitting their branches into dark passages. There is still so much to see, hear and to smell, that rich scent of leaf mould, of decaying bracken and wet moss. Later varieties of fungi are still poking their caps out above the top layer of leaves, to enjoy their brief moment of youth before a rapid evolution and reproductive cycle turns them into shrivelled and warty masses.

We are approaching Christmas which is, to my romantic mind, always an imagined scene of frost and mittens, mulled wine and a low sun casting long shadows across a winter walk. Sadly, long-term weather forecasts are ever more accurate and I am not sure when we last enjoyed a crisp Christmas. Living in the South West of England and now Brittany, it is always far more likely to be mild and damp.

The forest here thrives in the damp, warm climate though and I am learning to love it, death-traps and all.

Review: Top 10 Walks in the Lake District…

My regular readers (and even irregular ones…) will know that I am at my happiest when I am in the Lake District. As soon as I cross that border into Cumbria, and see the first fells in the distance, worries melt away and I feel as if I have come home.

OK, it must sound sentimental to many of those who live and work in the area, who undoubtedly have to deal with the same day to day pressures as I do back here in Somerset, and may not get the time to wander the fells full of fine feeling (I love a bit of alliteration) but I am not going to apologise for it. I am, after all, one of millions who visit the area, catch the lake district bug and return again and again. Just four weeks ago I had a blissful week of fine weather (too hot to walk one day!)  and good walking, supported by two fabulous little books in a series I have only just discovered.

The Lake District Top 10 Walks series is published by Northern Eye Books, and includes a wide range of pocket sized books perfect for the walker who enjoys a morning or afternoon walk of about five or six miles, with the sure and certain knowledge that they are on the right track to something extra special. From high fells to low fells; from waterfalls to lakesides; literary to historical; there is something for almost everyone.  This year we packed Walks to Viewpoints by Stewart Smith and Walks to Pubs (yes OK I know….) by Vivienne Crow.

ViewsAt £5.99 each they are great value. Smith’s Viewpoints includes walks to try wherever you might be based and it introduced me to areas I would not normally have considered – Great Mell Fell in the north, and Gummers How in the south. I wish I could have tried them all, but there is always the next time, and I have to mention one walk I was particularly impressed by – a low level walk around Wastwater which offered me an entirely new perspective on a lake that already enjoys the distinction of having at its shore ‘Britain’s Favourite View’. On a sunny day, near a pool created by the River Irt and on the southern shoreline after a walk through the bluebells of Low Wood, the stillness seemed profound, until I heard the gentle lapping of waves in a slight breeze. Looking up, to our right, at the terrifying screes, it was, genuinely a view to savour. On the return stretch via Greendale we met with an American couple, carrying the same book,  who had been misdirected and had started the walk the wrong way round. Apart from being a good sign that the book is selling well, I almost envied them, as the view back to the lake from this point onwards is fabulous.

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The view back to Wasdale

Crow’s Pub Walks offered us the chance to follow a wonderful walk around Great Langdale and Mickleden, my own ‘favourite view’. It starts and ends at The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel and takes you on tracks along the side of the fells and on valley paths.In the Mickleden Valley you genuinely feel tiny, as the peaks of Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and the Pikes loom over you. And, of course, the pub is great!

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Walking in Great Langdale to Mickleden

Now, I have a few problems with my legs [let’s do a bit of awareness raising here – it’s called primary lymphoedema and I inherited it from my dad. It causes my legs to swell, become very heavy and at risk of serious infections and I have to wear sexy (if you are a bit weird) high compression stockings to manage it. It is a bl**dy nuisance but I have had it a long time and I don’t let it rule my life] which can make walking difficult. I can walk for miles, but ask me to climb a difficult stile, or slip down a steep gravel path and a normally word conscious woman will be cursing with the best of them. So I have to be cautious what I take on. This is perhaps the only caveat with some of the walks – Stewart is a fit landscape photographer, and Vivienne also has masses of experience so when they say a walk is steep, it most certainly is. The walks took me quite a bit longer than suggested in the book, and after consultation with my much more experienced brother in law I discounted a couple as a bit ambitious for me. This makes it doubly important to take the relevant OS map with you as the publisher recommends, and even though they might seem a relatively manageable length and  supported by well written and accurate directions, it is still possible to get lost. The photographs are beautiful (I have my very own Stewart Smith print on the wall at home), but taken in the best conditions, so make sure you still go properly prepared for all weathers.

I would heartily recommend both these books, and intend to buy others in the series. So many books of circular walks are too big to stuff in a pocket, and these are just the right size. After a week they are already well-thumbed, and I still go back to them to remind myself of the walks we did. Do give them a try – they are available from the publisher and all the usual outlets as well as nearly every outdoors shop in Cumbria.

 

Going ‘home’ -The Lake District as therapy

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View over Mickleden

Next week we have a week away. Well I do – I am not sure how much of a holiday my husband really thinks a week in the Lake District is, although we share a cottage with two of his numerous brothers and it is good chance for a catch up over a variety of wonderful Cumbrian beers. For me though, it feels like a visit home; the other 51 weeks (or 50 if I get to sneak in two trips up) being a kind of exile for me.

My first visit was with my family when I was in my mid-teens, and it was love at first sight. We stayed in Midtown House in High Lorton, travelling over the Whinlatter Pass into Keswick and rambling around Buttermere. My dad had early onset Parkinsons so we were never going to get to the top of a mountain, but that made no difference. We made more trips up, until I married and had my own family and started my own traditions. It has come to mean the world to me.

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Dow Crag (Photo – WainwrightRoutes.co.uk)

The week after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, in my early forties with two young children, we went up for a week and stayed at Torver, near Coniston. We were all in shock, and I knew I was going home to an immediate mastectomy, but a week in the Lakes was just what I needed. I climbed to the top of Dow Crag, and felt that anything was possible. I stood in the Langdales, looking over the Mickleden valley, and felt like a tiny speck in the mists of time. I vowed then that nothing would stop me going back, and I have stood in the same place, many many times since. Depression, anxiety – everything seems to melt away at the first sight of the fells.

downloadI raised over £4,000 for charity walking in the footsteps of the poet John Keats through the Lakes, despite the fact that much of his route is under the A591 and Thirlmere (I found a few detours!), and a trip up is always the best motivation to get a bit fitter. As we get older we are finding things hurt a little more a little sooner, but this year we are planning a few walks from Stewart Smith’s Walks to Viewpoints (Lake District – Top 10 Walks) and Pub Walks: Walks to Cumbria’s Best Pubs by Vivienne Crow in the same series. We know our limitations, but the experience of reaching the end of a walk – whether it be round something or up something – is worth every ache and pain.

I am going to try and keep up a little journal of the trip next week. I don’t usually write much when I am up there. But this time I will try (no pressure).

I would love Cumbria to be my home, but whether that happens, or not, it feels like the place I want to spend all of my days.

 

 

 

 

Minding where I’m going: The road less travelled by…

I took a wonderful walk last Thursday.

It started on the well-worn route behind the ‘best beds in the world’ Relyon factory just around the corner from where we live in Wellington, Somerset. The footpath is a narrow one, overhung with spindly branches in winter and brambles (and spindly branches) in summer. It is the local ‘dog poo alley’ so the walk is usually less than relaxed, sidestepping as one must the deposits left by the myriad mutts that live close by. On this day though I decided, as at 5pm the sun continued to shine on the fields behind the sewage works, to extend the walk past this local eyesore  and on into the real countryside that we are lucky enough to have, if not on our doorstep, then within half a mile of our house.

Something – perhaps the smell of some unidentified hedgerow blossom or the sun on my face, or the fact that the path was much clearer and drier than usual – made me feel adventurous and instead of turning right to cross the railway line (one of those horrid crossings where there are no warnings and you actually have to do the Green Cross Code to avoid an Inter-City) I went straight ahead.

Continue reading “Minding where I’m going: The road less travelled by…”