Sunrise

One of the best things about winter is that the sun comes up sufficiently late for us to catch the sunrise. Molly and I were taking our early morning walk the other day and the sun was just coming up over the hills. The colours were stunning. It was like normal life, but with the colour saturation cranked up to the max.*

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* Please excuse the large volume of photos on my blog that are of this part of Somerset and taken with my cameraphone. But I walk along here several times a day and there’s always something new to see. I really do live in a particularly fantastic part of the world. And no, I don’t work for the tourist board. Though perhaps I should.

Getting back to nature… in a cemetery

I spend Saturday volunteering at the Bristol BioBlitz, an annual event that gets everyone involved to identify as many species as possible on a given site over the course of two days. This year’s venue was the historic Arnos Vale cemetery, a fascinating place that I have been meaning to visit for some time. While I was mainly there to take photos of the flora and fauna, I couldn’t help but try to capture the scale and gravity of the cemetery itself, too.

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Why I’ll probably never live in a little country cottage

I used to dream about living in a little cottage in the country, miles from the nearest neighbour, with a dog resting on the front wall and chickens scratching around in the back yard. Or perhaps an old coastguard cottage on a cliff top somewhere, nothing in sight but the sea and the sky. But the older I get, the more I realise that this isn’t going to happen.

For one thing, I’m no longer sure that I want to live in the middle of nowhere. Having lived for the last four years on the edge of a small market town in Somerset, I’ve kind of gotten used to having neighbours and to being able to walk to the shops. And while it’s not exactly what you’d call a particularly urban area (there are open fields just a five minute walk away), it’s nice to have things like the farmers market, doctor’s surgery and vet within easy reach.

For another thing, I need to earn money and I’m not sure how I’d go about that if I lived cut off from the rest of civilisation. Even though I can do much of my writing and research at the kitchen table (as long as I have a phone and internet access), I do need to get out occasionally. And for my consultancy work, I really need to be near to my clients. If I were to live somewhere in the wilds, I’d definitely need to (a) write a lot more and a lot more quickly or (b) come up with a very different approach to paying the mortgage.

I also like having access to the things that you can only really get in a large town or city. We’re just a twenty minute drive or a short bus ride away from the city of Bristol, with its university, bookshops, clothes stores, coffee shops, theatres, evening lectures and other cultural events. And I’m not sure that I’m ready to give up on them quite yet. Having a mainline railway station, two motorways and an airport all within about fifteen minutes is also a definite plus, and not something that many country villages can boast.

I’ve always loved the countryside and the coast and they have a very strong influence on my life. And I’m really not much of a city dweller. But we’re fairly sociable creatures and living on the edge of our little town seems to suit us quite well. In fact, it strikes me that a city ‘hub’ surrounded by a series small towns could be a fairly sustainable way of living for most people. So while an isolated cottage in a picturesque valley or on some rugged coastline somewhere may have its appeal, it’s perhaps not for me. Or, at least, not yet.

A morning walk

My dog and I have just got back from our morning walk through the fields on the edge of the small town where we live. We have a very pleasant morning walk, in which we meander along the side of a long valley, which leads from Bristol right down to the sea. And when it is sunny like today, our walk is a particular pleasure.

The valley near our house

Valley of the hounds

As we reached the mid-point of our wander, we passed two small terriers playing on the edge of a field. Molly greeted them in her usual enthusiastic manner and, after a brief interlude in which the three dogs took turns to chase each other in a sweeping circle through the freshly-cut grass, we continued on our way.

About five minutes later, we heard one of the terriers let out a colossal woof. Not a ‘look what I’ve found’ woof or a ‘help, a tiger’s got me’ woof, but one that says simply ‘hello world, I’m here’. In the dewy morning air, the woof echoed slowly down the valley, as if all the world’s terriers were joining in. Our new friend was evidently surprised by this response, as he woofed again. And again.

One by one, other dogs in the fields and hamlets down the valley joined in, until the place was alive with a riotous symphony of canine communication, multiplied a hundred-fold by the steep hills on either side. My own dog, needless to say, sat silently, taking this all in with her usual quizzical expression. And then, suddenly, and with the sad inevitably of all things ephemeral, the moment was over and the dogs fell silent. Molly and I looked at each other and continued on our way.

My literary dilemma

Ever since I learned to read as a child, I’ve been a great fan of the written word. I grew up with Swallows and Amazons, the Hardy boys and the Famous Five. I had hundreds of books and borrowed even more from the local library. Even now as an adult, I usually have at least two or three on the go. And my house is, basically, a big bookshelf with a door and a roof.

When it comes to reading, I’ll admit readily to being a bit of a traditionalist. I love the feel of a book in my hands and like being able to lug one or two around in my briefcase or in my bag when I go on holiday. I sometimes buy books in the bookshops in town, but generally hear about something interesting from friends, in the paper or online and end up buying it online.

Recently, though, I’ve bought myself an Amazon Kindle (well, I bought it as a birthday present for my wife, but I’m not sure she’s actually got her mitts on it yet) and have downloaded a few books that I hadn’t quite got around to reading. I wouldn’t say that I’m a complete Kindle convert, but it is a handy way of keeping a few books at my fingertips and I can see myself using it more and more.

Then I read Tim Waterstone’s article in the Guardian explaining how, in his view, Amazon is destroying the UK book industry and annihilating local and independent bookshops across the country. This puts me in a bit of a quandary. Can I be a fan of books and continue to buy them online?

The conundrum is this. I love small, independent bookshops with well curated stock and knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff. And I would like dearly to be able to spend a lazy hour or two on a Sunday afternoon browsing a few titles and checking out the latest from my favourite authors while savouring a freshly brewed coffee and stroking the owner’s cat. But unfortunately, I don’t live in a Lucy Dillon novel and I don’t happen to have a branch of Daunt Books just around the corner.

We do have a small, independent bookshop in our town, but it’s cramped, dreary and only stocks local footpath maps and things about the second world war. And every time I go in to give it another try, the lady who runs it either ignores me or stares at me like I’m about to steal the carpets and curtains. I would love to do my bit to keep it in business, but to be honest it isn’t worth it. Some places just have to die, and my local bookshop is one of them.

If bookshops are going to compete with the likes of Amazon, then they need to do what Amazon cannot. They need to be friendly places that bring people and books together. They need to really know and understand their customers in a way that an algorithm is unable to achieve. They need to generate a warmth and passion that you can’t get from a website or an app.

I take great pleasure from reading and I’m happy to pay for the books that I buy. And if I know that the books have been chosen, ordered and presented with enthusiasm and care, then I’m happy to forego the discounts that Amazon can offer me or the convenience that I can get from my Kindle. But I need to know that the person selling them to me cares as much about the books – and my enjoyment of them – as I do.

Eight ideas for a fun life

When I read through books and magazine, or talk to people when I’m out and about, I’m constantly coming across new ideas or new ways of doing things. As someone who is on an ongoing quest to ‘do well, be nice and have a life… all at the same time’, I get very excited about these things but invariably never get around to doing anything about them.

So rather than consign them to my little black book of ‘things to do when I’ve got a spare month on my hands’, I thought I’d share them with you here on my blog. I’m not saying that these are necessarily good ideas, or that they’ll make you the next Richard Branson, but they’re all things that sound fun to me.

If you want to give any of them a try, then please feel free. And do let me know how it goes. I might even try one or two myself, at some point, if I ever get around to it.

1. The veggie van. Get a van, preferably an electric one or one of those really old Renault things, and set up a mobile shop selling local fruit, vegetables, bread and preserves. Collect produce from local suppliers in the morning and spend the afternoon and evening driving to wherever your customers need you to be, such as outside offices or by the railway station. We all love farmers markets, after all, but they’re usually either only once a month or during the week, when everyone’s at work.

2. The mobile coffee cart. Get a little motorised coffee cart and set up a regular round in your local area, selling tea, coffee and home-made pastries. Smile at everybody, ask how they are and become a local icon. Not necessarily the biggest money-spinner, but a great way to get out, meet people and generate a sense of community.

3. The market garden. There’s a field on the edge of our town that was bought by the Council a couple of years ago. They’re currently deciding whether to turn it into a football pitch or a children’s playground. What it would make, though, is an excellent market garden, growing fresh, organic fruit and vegetables for the local population and bringing people closer to the food they eat. So find a small plot of land and get growing.

4. The guerilla gardening campaign. I’m a big fan of guerilla gardening (see http://www.guerrillagardening.org/ if you don’t know what that is) and think that it’s a brilliant way to make boring, overgrown or derelict parts of town more beautiful and more inspiring. I’ve never really got around to doing much about it, though. But what’s to stop you (or me, for that matter) from sowing a handful of sunflower seeds on a roundabout or growing a few radishes in the planter by the bus stop?

5. The virtual orchard. I’d really love an apple orchard, but like most people have limited space. So for the moment, at least, I’ll have to be satisfied with the couple of little trees at the bottom of the garden. But why not a ‘virtual’ orchard? Go around your community and map out where the different apple trees are and who owns them. Then, at harvest time, recruit volunteers to pick the apples, turn them into juice or cider or anything apple-y, and share them with the ‘owners’ of the orchard and everyone else in your community.

6. The heritage trail. The town I live in has a fantastic history dating back through the centuries, but nobody really seems to know very much about where they live and how it has developed. My (currently very vague) plan is to develop a guided walking tour of the town, highlighting the key elements of its social, cultural and industrial heritage. This would be accompanied by a guidebook, an audio download, a colourful map and perhaps even some display boards. Why not do something similar for where you live?

7. The guerilla art campaign. I’m a big fan of art, especially things that challenge me or make me think about things in a new way. In a wood near where my mum lives, someone has made tiny little front doors that they have stuck to the trunks of some of the trees. Inspired. Or check out some of Slinkachu’s little people. I like drawing and I like making things, so why can’t I find the time (or the talent) to do something like this? It’s fun, it’s cool and it makes people smile. There really ought to be state funding available…

8. The community bookshop / coffee shop / bakery. I like books, I like coffee, I like baking and I like bringing people together. So my wife’s suggestion that I find a group of local people and open a not-for-profit community bookshop, coffee shop and bakery probably isn’t too far off the mark. A group of similarly-minded folk have opened a community bookshop in the next town and it seems to be going great guns. After all, who doesn’t like coming in for a coffee, a good read and a bit of a chat?