Getting close to nature

We had a lovely sunny evening here the other day, so I put a long-ish lens on my camera and – together with Natalie and Molly – headed out for a pleasant after-work walk. We wandered down an old farm track that I quite frequently hurtle along as part of my trail runs. But at a slower pace and with a viewfinder to peer through, I was surprised by quite how much was going on. Continue reading

Time to hit the trail

I’ve been running for a few months now and have got to the stage where I can run up to about ten miles without exhausting myself too completely. I try to do a mixture of short, intense sessions and longer, slow runs. And I do as much of my running as I can off road. But as my runs get more ambitious, I’m learning more about what it means to be a runner.

Take last week, for example. I set out on Monday afternoon for a nice six mile trot up onto the ridge to the south of town, along the top and then back down again. It was a sunny day and I enjoyed the trek out across the fields. I’d never ventured into this neck of the woods before, so had taken the precaution of bringing a map with me. This came in handy as I navigated the tracks across to the next town and then up towards the ridge.

The hill up to the ridge was pretty steep and took in some rather rough terrain. But I was soon at the top enjoying the fantastic view. The photos here are looking out across the valley where I live. In the bottom one, you can even just see the sea in the distance.

I had a very pleasant run along the ridge. However, the climb up the hill had tired me out quite a bit so I have to admit to slowing down to a walk from time to time. The terrain was rough at the start, but after a mile or so smoothed out somewhat into a rough road hemmed in by rather large (and rather posh) houses. All very impressive.

After about three miles on the ridge, it was time to head downhill and back towards town. The bridleway I followed was quite rough and more than a little muddy, so it wasn’t really much easier running down the hill than it had been running up. But I was still feeling pretty chipper and enjoying the exercise and fresh air.

When I got home, though, things took a slightly different turn. The moment I wandered in through the garden gate, I started to feel a bit sick. And by the time I’d had a drink, taken a shower and headed out to take the dog for a walk, I really felt rather rotten. Luckily, after I’d walked the dog, had another drink, eaten a little and loafed around on the settee for a while I felt quite a lot better. But I did, if I’m honest, give myself a little scare.

Thinking back over my run, I brought this state of affairs entirely upon myself. I went out on a long-ish (for me, at least) hilly run in the middle of the afternoon on a very warm day. I hadn’t eaten much in the previous few hours. And I didn’t take anything to drink with me. In short, I was a bit of a muppet. But I did have a really great run. And I learned some valuable lessons along the way.

Dry Stone Walling 101

A couple of weekends back (yes, I’m a bit behind with my blog posts), I went on a two-day introduction to dry stone walling, run by the fantastic people at the South West England Dry Stone Walling Association. I’d been nurturing a vague interest in dry stone walling for some time, so when I saw that there was a course on (quite literally) just down the road, I felt that it was some kind of sign – so signed up!

In case you haven’t come across dry stone walling before, it’s the craft of (as the name suggests) building a wall from stones, but without using any mortar. Dry stone walls are common in many parts of England, particularly in agricultural areas. Because the geology of each area is different, the style of walling varies to take account of the characteristics of the local stone.

Our task on the course was to dismantle an old wall (i.e. the one built by the people on the previous course a few months ago) and rebuild it from scratch. The first job was to take down the old wall down and to dig out the large foundation stones. It’s important to build directly onto the inert subsoil, as the topsoil is still breaking down and does not, therefore, provide a stable base. This means lots of digging.

At the end of which we were left with a satisfyingly large pile of stones, each sorted vaguely according to size…

…as well as a very nice trench. We used a frame and some string to mark where we wanted the wall to be. The wall is made up of two separate vertical layers, interlocking with each other, and with smaller stones filling the gaps in the middle. And the two layers slope inwards in a 1:6 ratio, providing additional stability. (I bet you didn’t think you’d be learning this when you started surfing the internet today…)

With our trench all marked out, we started relaying the foundation stones. We each worked on one section of one side of the wall, so we soon got to know each other quite well. And the agony of lugging massive stones around created an odd kind of bond in seemingly record time.

Thankfully, it was soon time for lunch. The course instructors were well prepared, with a gas stove to boil water for tea and a converted horse box with a toilet. (Yes, you read that correctly. It’s behind the white partition in the photo below.) To be honest, after weeks and weeks of doing ‘work’ work, I was really enjoying just being outside and doing some manual labour. I don’t know why, but it just feels more honest, somehow.

Inevitably, we were soon back at work. By this stage, the wall was starting to appear above ground level (always helpful in a wall) and we had to make sure that all of the stones were well fixed and didn’t move around. (The trick is to insert smaller stones from behind to get a solid fit.) While some parts of the country have lovely, uniform chunks of stone, the local pennant sandstone around here appears to be somewhat random. But if you look hard enough, I found, there’s almost always a stone to fit the gap you’re struggling with.

By the end of day one, our wall was almost certainly recognisable as such. Admittedly, it wouldn’t yet keep the cows in (I forgot to mention that we were working in a cow field, with the cows paying particular attention to our activities), but it was most definitely getting there.

You can see in the photo below how the stones overlap to create a solid structure. The mantra, apparently, is ‘one on two, two on one’, to make sure you don’t get any weak points. Admittedly, there are some fairly sizeable gaps between some of the stones, but please don’t forget that we were beginners, and so should be permitted a certain amount of leeway in such matters.

We were also fairly mucky by this stage, as the wind had been blowing the dirt around in little dust devils. I didn’t realise until I’d walked home quite how much like a vagrant I looked. Which explained why the wedding party I’d passed at the church had given me such a wide berth. In fact, I didn’t really get properly clean until about three days later.

On day two, we soon got cracking in adding height to our wall. By lunch time, it was already approaching the correct height – about 1.2 metres. And it hadn’t yet fallen over, which is always a good sign.

Next step was to add stones along the top, each tilted at 45 degrees. These help to stop the stones along the top from falling off, but mostly just look pretty.

With this final task done, we stepped back and admired our handiwork. We were, to be honest, all feeling a little bit pleased with ourselves. All except the chap in the camouflage jacket in the photo below. He’s Jon and he was our chief instructor. And he’s clearly wondering how he’s going to explain to the farmer why his perfectly good wall has been demolished and replaced with this rather wonky one.

In all fairness, I think our wall looked fairly good. Well made dry stone walls can last for millennia, so hopefully ours will survive at least until the next course comes along and rebuilds it.

The mudrunner and me

With the Bristol 10k race only two months away (eek), my training is well and truly under way. Living in a small market town in North Somerset, I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to places to run, with a wide range of on- and off-road options on my doorstep. My favourite place to run is the beach, but this is a half-hour drive away so isn’t suitable for everyday running. But my second favourite, thankfully, is just down the road.

It’s called ‘The Drove’ and it’s a farm track that runs alongside the drainage ditches (‘rhynes’) on the moors at the edge of town. It’s nice and flat, which is great. It’s about four miles out and back. And there’s one bit, between two easily recognisable side-tracks, that’s almost exactly a mile long – which is great for speed sessions. Here’s the beginning of the track…

Along the rhyne

The best bit, though, is that the Drove is completely traffic free, so I can take Molly along without worrying too much about what she’s getting up to while I’m trundling along. Short of jumping into one of the ditches (which she’s only done once), there’s not much she can do to get into trouble. Unless it’s been raining, in which case she can get very, very (and I mean VERY) muddy. Which inevitably calls for a bath.

This is what happened a couple of weeks ago, when we had a great run but both got rather mucky. Molly knows the command ‘go get in the bath you mucky hooligan’, so she dutifully raced upstairs and jumped into the bathtub. It was only when I got the shampoo out that she started to look a little dubious…

Bathtime for Molly

But she was soon enjoying the warm water from the shower attachment. (Yes, I really am far to kind to the dog.) You’ll note she even gets a bathmat, to stop her sliding around. To be honest, Molly’s the only one who uses the bath as (a) we have a perfectly decent shower, (b) I’m not entirely sure that it’s plumbed in correctly, and (c) once Molly’s been in the bath, nobody else in their right mind would want to go near it.

Here we are mid-wash…

The shampoo

And here’s the bath. You’ll see what I mean about nobody else wanting to use it.

Muddy bathtub

After the wash comes the dry. This is usually the most exciting part of the process, as Molly insists on jumping around while she’s being dried. The drying stage can take anywhere between two and four towels. (Molly has her own. We don’t share.) On this occasion, it was a full four-towel job. This includes cleaning up the bathroom afterwards.

The dry

Once Molly’s dry, she knows that she gets a ‘well done’ biscuit, so races down to the kitchen where we keep the biscuit tin. She skids on the vinyl in the hall at the bottom of the stairs, spinning out and colliding with the stacked-up shoes like a racing car hitting a pile of tyres on a tight corner. It’s all part of the routine.

Here she is waiting for her biscuit. The word you’re looking for is ‘entitlement’. As in, ‘I am entitled to that biscuit now, so hand it over and nobody needs to get hurt.’

Time for a biscuit

And because it’s still quite cold out, I then wrestle Molly into her extremely embarrassing fleece jacket and make her sit on her cushion by the radiator. (And yes, this is possibly the largest dog cushion known to mankind.) By this enormous radiator is, to be honest, probably the most comfortable place in the house.

Staying warm

Once my little mudrunner is washed and dry, the rest of the house is now dirty and soaking wet. As, inevitably, am I…

And now bathtime for me

Snowtime!

When I woke up this morning, I glanced out of the window and thought for a moment that I’d sleepwalked into the wardrobe and been transported to Narnia. The street lights were glowing and there was a carpet of smooth, velvety snow covering the ground. But then a man in a bobble hat skidded past, towed along by a massively over-enthusiastic border collie, and I realised that I was still at home. But, boy, was it snowing.

Nailsea or Narnia?

By the time I was up properly and listening to my porridge bubble away on the hob, what had been a paltry two inches of snow was a fairly respectable four. And still it was falling, great big flakes tumbling out of the sky like leaves from a tree.

Snow in the garden

We wasted no time in getting dressed in our coats, hats, scarves and mittens (Natalie and me) and outdoor hooligan harness (Molly) and heading out to the nearby fields. It had just about got light by now, though the falling snow made it a bit difficult to see where we were going. The schools were shut, none of the buses were running and it was clear from the absence of tyre tracks that most people had given up on the idea of going to work.

Natalie in the snow

Out on the hills, the snow made everything look so clean and new. If it hadn’t been for the trees, with the snow clinging to their branches like frosting on a wedding cake, it would have been difficult to tell where the ground stopped and the sky started.

Snow-covered tree

Needless to say, Molly loved it. She’s a big fan of the snow and had a great time chasing snowballs and barrelling into the few other dogs that were around. And while I’m a big, grown-up adult kind of person, I must admit that I enjoyed playing in the snow, too. (But only a little bit.)

Playing snowball with Molly

What Molly couldn’t understand, though, was why the snowballs I was throwing for her kept disappearing. She’d leap into the air, catch the snowball in her mouth and then find that all she got was a giant slurp of water. But rather than explain to her the basic laws of physics, I just kept chucking more.

Hunting for snowballs

And she kept racing around like a lunatic.

A high speed hound

With me tagging along behind her. (You can just see me here on the right.)

Molly racing through the countryside

As we headed home, we came across an army of little groups heading the way we’d just come. Each group seemed to contain a very harassed (and very well wrapped) parent, a sledge, a grinning dog and eight (or more) very small, very excited (and also very well wrapped) children. All off out to enjoy the snow.

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.

And then the rains came

Until last weekend, it had been raining here non-stop for the best part of a month. Now, we’re quite used to a bit of bad weather, but when a significant part of your annual rainfall arrives over the course of just a few days, things don’t always work as they should. Which is why much of the area around here has been a little bit on the damp side.

In some places, it has been quite dramatic. I drove into Bristol just as the worst of the floods had started, and was a little surprised to see torrents – and I mean torrents – of water gushing down the hillside and onto the main road. And when I returned a short while later, this and several other roads had been closed by the police, as they were simply impassable.

Some of the lower-lying villages have been practically cut off, such has been the scale of the rainfall. Because it has been so wet for so long, when the rain falls there’s just nowhere for it to go, so it forms huge pools wherever it gathers – on field, on roads, in people’s houses. Not great. And for the third time this year, too.

When the rain finally stopped last weekend, Natalie, Molly and I took a stroll down into the valley to see how things were doing. Here’s the team ready to start…

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The sports field across the road was half covered with water, which made for great photos and fantastic paddling, but probably wasn’t much good for football.

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We could also see some brand new water features dotted around the landscape. See the lovely lake behind the trees in the picture below? It’s supposed to be a field (and a road). I’m writing this a week later, and the water’s still there.

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As we walked across the field down towards the road, Molly found a very exciting stick, so we had to take a short break.

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Which turned into a slightly longer break.

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Which became longer still when one of Molly’s friends (Bud) arrived to share in the action.

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But we eventually made it down into the valley, where our town almost meets the next village. And where the train station is. Only two hours (direct!) to London – not bad, huh? Anyway, this is the lowest lying part of the town, so it was no surprise that there was a lot of water. This is (I think) a glacial valley and is essentially a flood plain, so there are numerous rhynes that drain the land and keep it usable.

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This one here is usually a babbling little brook, but today it was quite a lot more than that. I half expected to see some teeny weeny kayakers whooshing down it.

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You can see the footpaths across the fields, as these were the first bits to fill up. The water’s just not draining away, so if there’s any more rain, then the field will disappear.

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You see the grey barn in the middle of the picture below? And the small cottage immediately to the left of it? Natalie and I used to live there. We remember, during a similar bout of torrential rain several years ago, standing on the doorstep, watching the flood waters creep their way slowly across the field towards the house. Luckily, they stopped several metres short, but it was not a good feeling. Unsurprisingly, we have since moved quite considerably uphill.

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The nature reserve on the other side of the road was similarly drenched. Usually a little lake with a small drainage ditch running alongside it, the site was now a large lake with a tiny peninsular of land running down the middle.

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The local wildlife was clearly loving it.

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But, for everyone else, the whole episode was a bit of a nightmare. As I mentioned before, this is the third time it’s happened this year. And still, we insist on building housing estates on flood plains and ignoring the warnings of scientists about climate change and extreme weather. Honestly, how much more of a sign do we need?

There goes the sun

We’re having some great sunsets this week. Here’s yesterday’s. It might not look that brilliant, but after several weeks of non-stop cloud and torrential rain, even the tiniest bit of sunshine is worth celebrating…

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And just look how it made the church glow…

IMAG0104Which reminds me, I went out at the weekend and took some photos of the flood water. Our little corner of Somerset looked for a while just like the Lake District. And some bits still do. I’ll get the pictures online soon. (Mega-hectic work week…)

An early morning wonderland

I’ve just got back from taking the dog for her morning walk across the fields. It was a little nippy first thing (about minus two degrees when we first went outside) and the mist was hanging over the countryside like something magical, as if the Earth was still waking up and hadn’t quite got dressed yet.

I only had my cameraphone with me, I’m afraid, so my photos aren’t very good. But hopefully you can get some idea of what it was like. Here’s the ‘bottom field’. You can see that someone was here before us. And you can just make out Molly on the left, following a scent. Just after I took this photo, she had a mad puppy moment and ran right up the hill, around the tree in the patch of sunlight at the top and then back to me. No idea why.

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The sun was just coming up over the hills on the far side of the valley and it was so beautiful as it shone through the trees. The photo doesn’t really do it justice. I must remember to take at least my (sorry, Natalie’s) Nikon Coolpix with me next time.

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Here’s the view over the valley. Where we live used to be an island in the middle ages, so you can almost imagine what it must have been like to be surrounded by water. If you look carefully, you can see the church in the next village just looming out of the mist in the distance. What you can’t see, but I wish you could, is the tiny wisp of smoke coming from one of the little cottages among the trees on the far hillside. It made me smile to think of someone (possibly just like me) stoking the fire to make their first cup of tea of the day.

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Here’s the other way down the valley. Somewhere beyond the mist far off to the left is the city of Bristol. You’d never think we were only a twenty minute drive from the city centre.

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Here’s my favourite photo of the morning. It truly does, to my eyes at least, look like an early morning wonderland. Well worth getting out of bed for. Even at minus two degrees.

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