Tuesday, 15 December 2009

A Christmas Greeting

It's the time of year again when I sift through my Dad's old photographs from Antarctica. For some reason, this one always sticks in my mind whenever I pull out the stack of photos on thick, curled paper. Perhaps it's the sense of loneliness of the old ship's dog, left here by a Chilean vessel plying these icy waters. Perhaps it's the sense of icy stillness it conveys.

Have a happy Christmas, wherever you are.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Time and Tide

With orbital regularity we circle our year around a single visit to Lindisfarne. Despite being a tiny scrap of land, it's far from boring to spend a few days there, sometimes cut off from the mainland by the incoming tide. With each year, we just get deeper into it.

And as we sink deeper into this place, the pace of our ramblings gets slower, more sloth-like. And with it,imperceptibly, a world of hidden depth and detail is there to see.

For such a small place, it has immense spaciousness to it. The beaches of The Snook seem to go on for miles, and a slow walk can take forever. A time lapse of a place.

Now, what shall we do with all these tank traps?

Occasionally we'll sneak past the tide to other beaches, equally spacious. And everywhere is a sparseness, places polished by wind and waves.

Sailors from Seahouses on the wall of The Olde Ship Inn, possibly one of the best pubs in Britain

As the wind picked up outside, we went to see if The Journey, Fenwick Lawson's staggering sculpture was back in residence. To our delight, it was.

With each turning year, we do less and less on Lindisfarne. Walk more slowly, get less far. Walk on a slowly turning tidal scale. And with each year, it seems to mean more and more.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Cumbria- The Aftermath

The Ullswater Steamer Pier, broken and battered

It's been a fairly traumatic week for Cumbria. Rising floodwaters engulfed many low-lying areas of the county to devastating effect, destroying towns and countless homes along the way. Nearly everyone has a story to tell, some of them worse than others.

The hillsides are so swollen with water that there have been landslides in some valleys. As a geologist, this is pretty exciting stuff.

Waves in't road

The vast dog-legged lake of Ullswater had engulfed the roads on both flanks as well as a number of homes along its shores. Ploughing through waves to get to the end of the lake was fun, but nothing could prepare us for the scene of devastation at the end. Two landslides had steamed down the steep valley sides, taking out two barns along the way.

The toe of the landslide

Waves crashing over the end of the lake

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Flash of Inspiration

The Great Orme Lighthouse

Stu wouldn’t let on where we were going. North Wales, perhaps? Or Scotland? To keep up the suspense, he mischieviously did a couple of laps of the M6 roundabout. We took the south exit, and so at least that was a clue.

To cut a long story short we ended up at the seaside. Skirting through the well to do areas of Llandudno, though, I still couldn’t guess where we were going. The road snaked out onto the limestone shell of the Great Orme, winding high above precipitous cliffs. And then a faded red and gold sign pointed to the Great Orme lighthouse, now a most unusual bed and breakfast.

An evocative mix of antique wood and diving helmets: the inside of the lighthouse

A perfect antidote to modern civilisation, the Lighthouse hasn’t really changed much since it was built in the late nineteenth century. Not a traditional stripey tower, it is instead a T shaped, turreted limestone castle with the lamp room perched high above a three hundred foot drop to the sea.

Inside the old telegraph room, we watched all 280 degrees of sky turn from bright blue to gold as the sun set. It couldn’t have been a better way to spend my 40th birthday.

Door near St. Tudno's Church

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Once Around The Island

Sea Kayaking Round Milos and Kimolos

Another bright blue day was dawning on the Greek island of Milos. Things were ticking along as they have always done. There were familiar faces drinking the same drinks at the same bar tables. Just a little bit more leathery than six months before. Archontoula's beaming smile at the delightful taverna in the Plaka was just as it always was, and Katharina was opening up the fishing tackle shop across the road, just like before.

Six months had passed since we’d left this wonderful place, and it was as if life on the island had been frozen in time, giving the illusion that nothing had changed, or ever will.

The old Sulphur Mine

This timeless magic rests everywhere on Milos. But this time, everything inside felt different. Stu and I were meant to be joining one of Rod Feldtmann's sea kayak expeditions to circumnavigate the 120 km coastline. But just hours before the flight, Stu had to finally admit that his back was too painful to last the journey there, let alone the kayak trip. It was a dark tunnel that lead me onto the plane on my own, but it was pointless for both of us to back out. And in any case, I needed the experience, to be happy in big waves. Then, Olympic Airways went bust a day or two before, abruptly severing the airborne lifeline to the island.

Udo, Hellen and Sandra

As the collection of Dutch, German and British kayakers thumped down their hefty packs outside Perros’ bar in Triovassalos, we compared stories of trains, planes and automobiles as Olympic Airlines sputtered to a financial halt. No matter, we were here now, and were about to enter a new world, a reality almost untouchable by the hasty demands of the modern world. A place of few things: just the five elements and only the instant of time occupied by the here and now.

The Taste of Salt

It was fascinating to be fully immersed in this salty existence. Washing everything from dishes to clothes to ourselves in the sea. We all slotted into a deliriously simple beach life camped on the shore. How easy it was to wash dishes with salt water and some sand. And occasionally, an octopus would come over and lend a tentacle...(or eight).

It struck me that although we were tired, we were all happy. It was physically demanding, but a kayak full of gear was all we needed. Maybe the good things in life are not things. And everywhere, in everything, the taste of salt.

Blazing Paddles

For the first half of the trip, winds were light and the sea state pretty calm. As we rounded the south west corner of the island, though, the influence of the highest mountain started to come into play. Great downdraughts came steaming down the mountainside and onto the sea at near-gale force. Kayaking from bay to bay and out onto these Force 6 and 7 winds screeching around the headlands was a lot of fun. Like being pelted with a water gun at point blank range. Rod carefully edged us onward, one bay at a time.

Rod having a play in a Force 6-7 offshore wind

Then the sea began to roll. A two metre swell reared up, and I was about to get the experience I needed. We all were.

Christian enjoying the big waves at Cape Vani

From our little rainbow coloured kayaks, these were immense salty blue hills, settling out to about Force 5. But a funny thing happened. We all just got on with it. Terry started singing sea shanties in his flawless bass-baritone. Some of us joined in. Rod shouted us clear and concise instructions. We carried them out as best we could. To our surprise, and delight, we all found we could 'do' big waves. And even enjoyed it.

Sheltering from the storm at Sikia

A few days of being very alive in big waves and we had completed the circumnavigation. It had been tough, but fantastically good. We'd lived at sea for a whole week, and having completed this thing so much bigger than ourselves, we were happy.

Taking off in the Olympic Air plane, the land and sea tilted at a low angle and the diamond bright church at the top of the Plaka was glinting through blue sea. The scattering of white hillside houses hid Archontoula and her perfect taverna and the open door of Perros’ bar. Low down to the sea in the brightly coloured toy box boat houses of Klima, the salty cats were plumping up nests of sea grass before settling down for a sleep. The sea was sucking in and out of the rocks, and in the immense, sheltered bays, the wind shaving corners off the ashy cliffs. The light was breaking through the clefts of rock and into the endlessly writhing sea below. All of this life, this nature, shrinking to a fleck of land in an ocean of time.

Christian, me, Udo, Hellen, Roger, Jude, Marjolein, Sandra and Terry (photo by Rod Feldtmann).

Expeditions are always quite intense experiences, and it’s been hard to settle back into what we like to call ‘normal’ life afterwards. But sometimes it’s hard to know what is real and what is unreal. For a short time, that mythical unreality, that life in a salty blue bubble was as truthful an existence as we could experience. Those mornings of Force 5 and 6, the rolling of the Aegean swell, that was living nowhere but in the moment. That was surely about as real as it gets.

Photo by Rod Feldtmann

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Three Triathlons and a Mountain Marathon

Penny and I at the start of the Rab (photo courtesy of Jon Brooke, www.rightplacerighttime.co.uk)

It's been a crazy but fun month of doing big things. Thanks to a slip of the mouse on one or two online entry forms, I had been looking sidelong at September with a slight sense of trepidation. Most of that was down to one thing: the Helvellyn Triathlon. Not an event for the faint-hearted, it is a mile long swim in a cold lake, a 38 mile bike ride over Lakeland passes at their lung-busting best, then a 9 mile fell run to the Helvellyn ridge and back.

The other things were really just sharpeners, diversions from the main event. A sprint distance triathlon in Penrith and a club-organised tri in Appleby. And of course, there was the Rab Mountain Marathon.

Organised chaos in the transition area

But anyway. Back to The Helvellyn. The swim went like a breeze. The course was shortened a little as the water temperature was a bit low- any cooler and it would have had to be cancelled. And then from the drunken shadow-boxing out of the wetsuit, it was the long bike ride. If anything, this was the thing that drained the tanks, left the legs aching and crampy. But still, fascinating way to get that exhausted feeling without spending hours and hours on the hills...

By the time I'd got rid of the bike, everything from the waist down was in some kind of pain or cramp. It was an incredible feeling to know that 9 miles of mountain lay between me and a rest. As I hobbled those first few hundred metres while the legs adjusted to the run, Gill Douglas ran along side, as she had done for all the Arragons Cumbrian Triathlon Club folk. Before dropping back at the end of our one-sided conversation, she said '...just believe...'

These four events were a bag of chalk and cheese, as different from each other as they could get. The triathlon is a fun thing but it is, deep down, a contrivance, a fun thing to do with some fitness and a lot of equipment, but certainly a man-made game. The mountain marathon is different. It's about being absorbed into the mountains, going, as they say, where few men (or women) have gone before...

Penny on the Rab Mountain Marathon, the Howgills

The Rab was in the Howgills, those resting elephant-backs covered in a soft grass like the scruffy fur on a Border Terrier. They are, on any day of the week, some of my favourite hills to run in. It was a fantastic experience to spend two days running through them, slogging along sloping contours and into remote valleys where the situations were as grandiose as I'd seen on the LAMM in Scotland.

Perhaps the joy of mountain marathons is the sheer simplicity of knowing all you have to survive for two days is on your back. It's the kind of event where the mental and physical sides meet up, and if either one is not up to it, the game is over. To maintain the level of concentration needed while the tides of your mental state ebb and flow over two days is to slowly understand what you're capable of, what can or can't break you, and underneath it all, to perform a simple test of the spirit.

6.30 am, Cautley Spout

A glimpse of the English Schools Fell Racing Champs at Sedbergh

It's been a rewarding month of stepping onto the plate, and asking some big questions of myself. Give or take the odd moment of doubt in exhaustion, the answers have been positive. Chalk and cheese they all might be, but somewhere underneath it all, Gill was right. It just boils down to what you believe.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A Traditional Lakeland Show

Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling with the fells as a backdrop

Ever since moving to the Lakes, I've managed to miss every one of these shows. Sometimes it's a straight toss up between running some race, kayaking somewhere or the gentler pursuits of taking in a show. And last year, many were cancelled because of the monsoon season.

Kicking back after the third triathlon in as many weeks, we finally got it together and went to the Shepherd's Meet and Sheep Dog Trials in Rosthwaite, Borrowdale.

Having spent a lot of time at Welsh shows, it was great to see the Lakeland version, with the unique and hopefully never fading sports of fell racing and wrestling.

Billy Procter and the lads from Helm Hill on the start line of the Dalehead Fell Race

The Mind Game

The biggest attraction was the wrestling. The crowd, three or four deep on all sides, first stood mesmerised by the junior matches. These were usually over pretty quickly and all a question of body mass. The older lads treated us to more tactical mind games which could have gone on forever...more stalking than wrestling. Great stuff.

All of these things, the sheep dog trials, the shearing, the droving skills, right down to the walking sticks are for me just one or two generations in the past, and the vestiges are still somewhere, languishing in the blood. Everything except the wrestling. And Stu rather pointedly said I might be quite good at that....

Trail hounds have an intensity about them that is often rare in other breeds

Duck driving

Thursday, 17 September 2009


The Llyn peninsula is a singular place. Almost cut off from the rest of Wales, it has all the hallmarks of being an island. And it almost is. The landscape here is deeply rooted in the past, both primaeval and more recent: from ancient iron age hill forts to deeply gouged opencast mines.

Kayaking off here had an intangibly magical edge to it. Perhaps it was because of the bright blue sea, the warmth of the sun and the wonderfully rugged coastline. Or maybe it was the faint sizzle of belonging to this place. Not by birth, but by the far less obvious ties of ancestry.

In any case, a great place to paddle, often overlooked in the race to the tidal funspots of Anglesey.

A seagull feather on the water


From the vantage points of Snowdonia, a ragged line of perfectly peaked hills forms the backbone of the Llyn peninsula. Known collectively as Yr Eifl, these have been the mythical far off distant hills of my childhood, always there, yet never explored. Running through them was a dream made real in the bright blue sun of last weekend. Not vastly high, or remote, but learning now to expect the unexpected, they provided a surprise that took my breath away.

Around the summit of Tre'r Ceiri is an iron age stone rampart that encircles something like 150 ancient, perfectly built huts. High on this hill, with views stretching out over the sloping green baize and sea below, was an ancient community still preserved almost intact. All that was missing were the straw roofs and the palls of peat smoke. Was it amazing that this place still existed? Or was it that I had never heard about this place before?

It's so common to see hill forts dotted on the map but barely find a stone or two to mark their place in history. The complete picture of this place, by contrast, simply rises out of the ground. The huts are arranged organically like honey comb, drawn from the heavy scree into beautiful shapes. It is an amazing place.