A Dark Swim.

To swim in the dusk or at night, brings one to a strange metamorphosis. The world changes, into an enchanting cocktail of ghostly shadows, bubbles, and silvery light. Belisama the Celtic Goddess of lakes and rivers, feels close by.

On arrival at my favourite bay, the trees are swaying and rustling noisily. Dusk is racing out, the churning lake looks cold and rather uninviting. Glancing up anxiously, at the erratic arms of branches working crazily above my head, helps distract insidious thoughts of the inky depths.

Is that fat slimy eel, laughingly described by a passing Cumbrian fisherman as being, ”Bigger than you”….. now lurking nearby? Waiting with sharp fangs, to have a delicious snack.

Ugh! I shiver inwardly.

Undressing quickly, the east wind whips round and around, reminding me to hurry, hurry, hurry….. ”Get in the water, before you are cold and change your mind” Feet first, slowly sliding down the sloping rock into the slate-grey shallows, bracing myself for the first chilly hit……

Actually the reality is, I’m a coward when it comes to entering an autumnal lake!

IMG_1623 (3)It goes like this…..slowly, slowly, extremely slowly….gently lowering my body down, down, down, through the storm layer of leaves and twigs. Arms crossed covering my heart, gingerly immersing all my organs…..until full baptism ends with short, shallow breaths and loud profane shrieks! Often upsetting and scaring off any lurking dog walkers!

On fierce evenings such as these, senses come wildly alive. Launching out into the choppy waves is blissful. Gleefully, little whitecaps wallop their droplets into my eyes and hair. Obsidian water stretches out endlessly, towards shadowy mountains and low heavy clouds. The air trembles, shivering in anticipation of the impending storm. A sweet smell of rain floats by, on the whirling wind.

Protected, strangely cocooned and comforted in the now warm waters, I swim on and outwards into the deep mysterious centre. By now the light has faded and my home bay is out of sight, it’s a thought not to dwell on. Reminding myself to enjoy the moment, floating face upward, witnessing the pewter clouds scudding along is mesmerising, almost hypnotic.IMG_1619 (3)Swathes of spindly weed twirl below the surface, gently brushing my exposed limbs as they pass by, on their journey to meet the sea. Well at least that’s what I romantically tell myself…… when eel thoughts creep into my mind! Night swims bring feelings of calm and fear all mixed together.

The gathering of local ducks in their usual sleeping bay, is somewhat reassuring. Though it’s too wild a night, for the inquisitive bats and my beacon swans.

Suddenly the tempestuous wind picks up, plump rain falls, bouncing heavily. It truly is incredibly exhilarating, to be submerged in the middle of a lake in a squally storm, yet feel secure and guarded by the water.

Thoughts of Charles Kingsley’s book The Water Babies, flash into my head.

”How do you know that? Have you been there to see? And if you had been there to see, and had seen none, that would not prove that there were none … And no one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies”

With these words in mind, my dark swim took on another meaning.IMG_E1319 (4)

Who can know or prove, why wild swimming is such a spiritual experience?

I did know though, that it was time to turn for home, a shivery chill was starting to wash over me. A timely reminder that I must return to the shore and rejoin the other world.

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Journeys.

“Journeys like artists are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures – and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space but onwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection……”

These are the words of Lawrence Durrell, from his book, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus. He has my agreement, the beginnings of a true journey are often born within.

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In my case the call, usually begins without conscious thought. More of an intuitive spark. My own personal journeys cycling or otherwise, have on several occasions started out of a crisis. Once in a while, catastrophe or messiness in life, requires a period of escape, in order for us to become strong enough to endure or manage a situation.

Being in a deep state of introspection, surrounded by mountains, trees, lakes and wildlife offers substantial healing and inner growth. Grief and loss are perhaps the hardest and most complex of human emotions to cope with. Nature can be an unconditional support at such times, literally a rock to lean on. No matter what happens in life…..the trees, mountains, lakes, rivers, sea, sunsets, sunrises, stars and moonlight are close to being medicinal, and will always be there for us.

No false promises, platitudes or harsh words from that favourite tree! Whose branches are strong and supportive, as the fluttering leaves rustle and whisper their greetings.

Once upon a time, I fled with my bike and tent, to the Hebridean Isle of Mull.

It was late September. Wild, stinging squalls blew in off the grey Atlantic. Some days my bones felt like ice and tears flowed too often. Railing and shouting at the injustices of life, while biting headwinds pummeled the bike, literally dragging my ailing willpower, back to the surface. Staying upright on that narrow track, under the imposing black Ben Mor suddenly became crucial, there was no more time for self-pity.

The secret sheep fold I camped in that evening, welcomed this human presence like an old friend, protective and nurturing. An ancient jigsaw, of embroidered lichen stones passed no judgement, they have witnessed much and stoically accept everything.

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Crouching over the roaring stove, stirring bubbling porridge, enclosed by friendly stone walls, felt like a gift from heaven and a respite from the impossible. Such small moments are more important, than we often know. Perhaps in retrospect one realises, ‘Yes it was exactly what I needed at the time’

That particular journey to Mull, was instrumental in renewing my inner resolve. On returning to civilization, the situation I’d left behind was tackled with new energy and clear senses.

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Another journey, undertaken many years ago, made a huge impact on the well-being of my two sons and I.

A couple of weeks after our rather unsettling house fire, there came a moment of inspiration. Without hesitation, a huge rucksack was packed. We caught a train, plane, ferry and bus eventually arriving, dusty and travel-worn, in the southwest corner of Crete. As we emerged out of the rickety bus, an elderly Cretan man, curiously asked where we’d come from.

“England…. with these two?” he questioned, pointing incredulously at the boys! I nodded my head in affirmation.

“Bravo, bravo, bravo” and proceeded to slap me heartily on the back! It appeared that a mother bringing her eleven-year old and seven-year-old, over such a distance with no pre-bookings, had caught his imagination! (It was a long time ago!)

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April is low season in Crete. Luckily, only a handful of other foreigners were wandering the streets and inhabiting the guesthouses. Which suited us perfectly.

Each and every day we lived in the moment. Over those two weeks, we basked under cloudless blue skies, paddled in windy surf, went snorkelling in warm clear waters, foraged under smooth rocks, ate sumptuous picnics by the Libyan sea, collected wild flowers, pink shells and grainy white sands. We set our clock by the huge ferry, as it went to and fro, from the picturesque harbour.

To my sons delight, the local wild pelican wandering the sea front looking for treats, became our morning best friend!

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In the cool evenings we perched on the peninsula arm, gazing with wide eyes as a creamy moon rose in the west, whilst simultaneously a blurry orange sun slipped down into the east.

Gloriously, healing, fiery sunsets.

We returned to North Wales rejuvenated, sun-baked, smiling….replenished with the pleasure and wonder of life. Very ready to face the next phase of the aftermath.

I would love to hear any stories of a journey, that has made a difference to your life. If anyone would like to share one?

* Thanks to Sarah Phillipson for the Lawrence Durrell quote.

Food for Thought!

This is a very short blog post with a thought provoking quote from Walt Whitman. A famous, controversial American poet and humanist of the 19th century.

Surely his powerful words are even more meaningful and appropriate, in our present age of material consumerism and individualism?

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“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality and so on – have found that none of these finally satisfy or permanently wear –

What remains?

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Nature remains;

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to bring out from their torrid recesses, the affinity of a man or a woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons – the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

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I wonder what comes to your mind on reading this Walt Whitman quote?!

A Magical Cycle; Ambleside to Sawrey!

It’s unusual for myself, to disclose the details of a favourite bike route. Mainly because so many others do this so well, and perhaps selfishly, my hopes are always for a quiet ride!

However, I really want to share this beautiful, short seven mile route, from Ambleside to Near Sawrey. It’s potentially a great fourteen mile, day return ride, with fantastic south lakeland scenery…..peaceful gravel tracks. quiet back lanes and of course a lake or two!

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The start can be from the Rothay bridge/river junction at the far end of Rothay Park, Under Loughrigg in Ambleside.

From there, it’s up and over the packhorse bridge, pedal to the left, down the tarmac lane to meet the A593. Turn right, and take the next left at Clappersgate bridge, across the river Brathay, onto the B5286 Hawkshead road.

On the right hand side, about twenty-five metres after the Brathay Hall complex, a large wooden gate, signals the entrance to a gravel biking/walking track. It meanders uphill and downhill through delightful woodland. Flanked by sections of open fields with fab views of the Fells. There’s even some cute cobbled patches and a miniature wooden bridge.

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This path re-emerges suddenly, onto a short busy road section, just before the left-hand turn to Wray.

Follow the Wray sign post into another world……..

The peaceful, bramble filled, hedge scented lane, winds gently through Low Wray. Past the National Trust campsite marker, climbing uphill, to the ancient gate house of Wray Castle.

It’s also possible to use the designated footpath/track on the right hand side for a few hundred yards. I tend to stay on the tarmac, preferring the stunning Windermere lake views and the juicy abundant blackberries, not being one to ignore natures sumptuous food when out cycling!

Another short, sharp climb, ends in the picturesque village community of High Wray.

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A quiet well tended hamlet, with post box, village hall and wheelbarrows full of flowers. An idyllic place, where I would definitely like to permanently, ‘lay my hat!’

The narrow road leading onward, lined with enticing mixed woodland and tall hedgerows bursting with flora, drops away into the quaint settlement of Colthouse. Following a sharp left turn on the T-junction, after the last whitestoned house, brings one to the B5285. A minor road connecting Near Sawrey/Far Sawrey and the Windermere ferry.

Close to this junction, on the right is gate access to a long and sweeping gravel track. Kindly laid by the communities of Sawrey and Hawkshead, helping walkers and cyclists alike to keep safe.

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The views of Esthwaite Water along this track are absolutely mesmerizing. Its changeable waters can be a joyful sparkling silver, a blue-green mirror, or a cloud filled melancholic grey. A mood to suit everyone.

If you are really lucky, the local Ospreys can be seen swooping low over the trees, as they hunt down food for their chicks.

This part of the route also includes, only a couple of short road sections, which is an absolute blessing. As the road from Hawkshead to Near Sawrey is often overrun with Beatrix Potter bound visitors, mostly driving like blindfold snails!

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Finally two miles later, after a short, gravelly roller coaster section, the local children’s playground appears. Marking the village of Near Sawrey. This hamlet hosts a handsome pub along with other Lakeland accommodation. Plus the National Trust property of Beatrix Potters home including Peter Rabbits garden, are also available to visit….. If you continue on through and past Far Sawrey, it’s possible to do a circular route along Windermere lake shore…… but that’s another blog post!

So….if it’s a sunny, a drizzly day, or you are ‘shopped out’ in Ambleside…. give it a go!!

One couldn’t wish for a more lovely, calming cycle ride… have fun!

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Oneness.

Here is a rather moving and thought-provoking poem, I recently came across on Brainpickings. A fantastic website put together by Maria Popova.

It struck a chord with myself as a wonderfully supportive, poetic description of being alone or in solitude.

So I dedicate this poem written in 1938 by May Sarton, to all who are at this moment, travelling through life in quiet solitude…..

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CANTICLE 6
by May Sarton

Alone one is never lonely: the spirit
adventures, waking
In a quiet garden, in a cool house, abiding single there;
The spirit adventures in sleep, the sweet thirst-slaking
When only the moon’s reflection touches the wild hair.
There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone:

It finds a lovely certainty in the evening and the morning.
It is only where two have come together bone against bone
That those alonenesses take place, when, without warning
The sky opens over their heads to an infinite hole in space;
It is only turning at night to a lover that one learns
He is set apart like a star forever and that sleeping face

(For whom the heart has cried, for whom the frail hand burns)
Is swung out in the night alone, so luminous and still,
The waking spirit attends, the loving spirit gazes
Without communion, without touch, and comes to know at last
Out of a silence only and never when the body blazes
That love is present, that always burns alone, however steadfast.

Sea Ice/Rydal Lake Photos by; Janne Leppäkoski and Rachael Morgan

Finland….Yet Again!

Nagging at the back of my mind is a thought that won’t go away….. a new blog post is well overdue and needs to be written. Before you all stop looking and checking and never return!

Annoyingly, the truth is I’m stricken with temporary ( hopefully ) writers block. In other words, not a clue what to write about and the more I scour my brain, the more less ideas pop up. I suspect this is largely due to the fact, that my head and heart are still filled with Finland.

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At the moment, most of my spare time is being taken up by working through, well over one and a half thousand photos, plus a couple of hours of Finnish video film footage. As I try with difficulty, to reduce and squash a journey of five fantastic weeks, into an hour of storytelling!

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This means constant Finnish memories are flooding daily, into my psyche. Of course in many ways it is a marvellous situation, as good times are always greatly uplifting to think about. I find myself smiling inwardly and outwardly at most of the photos. Occasionally grimacing at my various facial expressions on the videos and pressing the Go-Pro delete button on a regular basis!

I’ve also had two Finnish visitors here in Ambleside! Ross and Pirkko, though Ross is actually English really. You may remember that they hosted me at their home in Himanka, through the warmshowers cycling website. We met in a local pub, drank local beer and enjoyed local water! Ross regaled me with their ongoing Longboat adventures through the northern canals, close to my home town in Yorkshire. It was fab to see you both…..thank you for visiting!

I’m waiting patiently to see some holiday snaps from another Finnish warmshowers host, Marcus of Nikarleby who is currently cycling through Norway. Can’t wait to hear from you, Marcus!

Janne of Haukapudas has also been out and about on his bike, cycling through the Icelandic interior….. he now has a personal gold medal, for surviving the worst and wildest storm of his life!

These are all new photos of Finland that you won’t have seen before, unless they have mistakenly migrated to my Twitter page! Hopefully, you are not bored with all the blog ravings about the subject of Finland!

You see….

……’I’ve had the time of my life’….

…… in Finland…..

……and want to share it’s beauty and joy, over and over again….. Enjoy!

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Shelter from the Storm

A recent email message from a cycling friend prompted and inspired this post.

My friend is currently cycling through the interior of Iceland….part of his route has meant practically no available food or shelter for four days, apart from his own self-sufficiency.

He was caught in a fierce storm, and it took him a full hour to put up his tent. I can only wonder and marvel, at the power and ferocity of that raw Icelandic storm.

On reading his description, my own storm memories came flooding back with a long forgotten intensity,

The first solo and long distance cycling journey, I ever ventured upon, took place in New Zealand. I borrowed my teenage son’s ill-fitting bike and begged the loan of a ‘suitable tent’ from Kiwi friends! Deciding perhaps recklessly in the sweet oblivion of freedom from children, that spending three weeks cycling around the South Island was a good idea and would be lots of fun! ”Never do anything by halfs” is a good Yorkshire saying to abide by…. it definitely adds excitement to life!

That was the first of many a cycling adventure during inclement weather. Or in other words…..making the choice to spend many hours outside on a bike or in a tent, being endlessly battered by torrential rain, crazy winds and nasty thunderstorms. New Zealand, Southern Ireland and the Hebrides, have the honour of gifting me, the most memorable and terrifying of ‘nights out’!

In fact the phrase, ‘nights in’ and ‘nights out’ has taken on a new meaning and dimension in my life!

Friends often stare incredulously.

Silently mouthing the question; ‘Why, why, oh why, would you want to challenge the Storm Gods, with only a thin sheet of flapping nylon, between their wrath and yourself?’

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I can only offer up my own humble reasons, as to why I continue to wild camp and cycle in inclement weather.

Actually the truth is that, cycling in rain and wind is mostly normal, for any cyclist, particularly in the UK!

Seriously though, the challenge of staring a storm in the face, throwing down the gauntlet, and sitting it out, emerging not victorious but thankful to feel truly and fully alive. After such a meeting, the tremendous feeling of pride, in having found the inner strength and skills to cope alone is almost addictive. It’s just so fantastic to be filled with complete awe, at the amazing strength and power of nature. I wouldn’t swap any of the tempests I’ve tackled and seen through, for a night in a friendly Hostel, comfy bed and breakfast or a cosy camper van. Each night of camping peril has taught me something new, and handed out an experience I couldn’t have gained elsewhere.

Of course, commonsense must prevail where wind strength and rain volume are concerned. Flash floods, lightning strikes, snow storms and hurricane winds are best avoided where possible!

Yes, I have been caught out, but thankfully avoided a flash flood…..the most terrifying of nightmares.

During that solitary New Zealand cycle tour, back in 2004. I quickly became aware of the fearsome South Island weather. The night I literally spent, holding onto the rickety tent poles and billowing, flimsy fly sheet, while the rain lashed down as the wind roared to high heaven……on a nearby campsite close to Nelson Lakes National Park, a lady and her tent were ‘picked up’ by the wind and tossed against a concrete wall. Sadly she did not live, to retell it.

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Putting New Zealand aside, the very worst nights I’ve experienced, have unsurprisingly been in the Hebridean Isles of Mull and Coll. Mulls weather rolls in off the west Atlantic. It’s so easy to be lulled into bliss, during a day under Mull’s blue sky and warm sun. Only to be suddenly hit by stormy weather, often appearing to come from nowhere.

Though if observant, the main warning does come from the ocean. Grey-black towering storm clouds and a dank wet mist, gradually comes-a-creeping with ominous speed, across the vast open skyline.

As a vulnerable cyclist, this usually means a race for shelter from the storm. Tent up efficiently, pegs in deep, provisions, clothes and sleeping bag in the tent, before the rain hits…..but above all, focusing on finding the safest tent spot!

Oops! One particular late afternoon in my haste to be hidden away, I pitched the tent in a slight dip. Heavy, non-stop rain soon turned that particular minor mistake, into a major one. To my horror, a small pond began to appear in the tent vestibule. I broke out in a sweat, at the thought of moving a laden tent in lashing rain. Fortunately there was still enough daylight to make it a manageable task.

The raging steam train of a wind however, was not going to call a truce and a battle began!

Coll, is the other Hebridean island that treated me to another extremely bad-tempered weather attack! This time the tent fly sheet disintegrated, torn into shreds before my disbelieving eyes. A potentially serious situation was averted, partly because of a long, light summer evening. Which meant after only a small epic and I eventually found a space in the only hostel on Coll.

You can read about the outcome of these two stories, in the Scotland/Hebrides section of this blog.

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Climbing off my bike at the end of a long, hard days cycling, the very first task never fails to give me great pleasure. When the tent is in place, with provisions and equipment, tidy and safe, a deep feeling of security and protection arises from within. Which is why, if a tent fails, particularly during wild camping, it literally does bring one up against the loss of a human basic survival need……shelter.

Without a refuge, there is no life saving respite or protection, from the sun, wind, rain, snow, insects, animals and people.

Certainly for myself, camping out overnight in wild, turbulent weather, has instilled a deep sense of gratitude, understanding and appreciation for shelter, from the storms of cycling and life.

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