Bonnie Scotland

It started, as a lot of good ideas start, while out on a run. I was talking to Anne about taking people – especially the over 50s – running locally, perhaps when they’re on holiday (I could also offer AirBnB). She mentioned that her daugher’s sister-in-law runs a business doing exactly that, in Scotland, and that perhaps we should go to visit her.

The long and the short of it was that Anne, Penny, Tricia and I all booked into Glenmore YHA in the Cairngorms and excitedly set off on a Thursday morning for a walking and running mini-break. After a coffee and a chat at Anne and Mark’s house we bundled our multiple bags into Tricia’s car, stopping at Dobbies in Perth for lunch (and a visit to Lakeland). We arrived at the YHA at about 4pm, in time to unpack the car and go for a run round Loch Morlich before doing yoga on the beach in the evening sun. The others then swam in the Loch – I got in up to my knees but it was VERY cold.

It was about 12 years ago I was last there. David, Alex and Bella and I had gone to the campsite with some friends. I was pregnant with Edward and one of the friends we were with found a 4-leafed clover which she gave me: it seemed to be good luck for my pregnancy, still in its early stages and I was by then 48 years old.

I can’t remember exactly what we did that time as we’d visited the area at other times as well: we’d taken the children to Aviemore a couple of times and I have a lovely photo of them at the side of Loch an Eilein, which has a castle on an island. Arriving in the area with my friends so many years later felt quite poignant, and in fact all weekend I alternated with feeling incredibly joyful at being in this amazing place and having such a fab. time, and slightly tearful.

Anne’s daughter’s sister in law turned up the next morning and after a brief chat she drove us to the Sugarbowl car park, from where we started running. There are lots of reindeer (caribou) around this part of Scotland, and we crossed a stream and went past a deer enclosure. They’re quite a problem (they eat young trees for a start), so it’s not only in Scotland but also in England that you’ll see deer fences in order to try to control the various types of deer which roam around. I was surprised that reindeer were white, as I’d expected them to be brown, Father Christmas-style.

Ahead of us we could see a pass called the Chalamain gap – nothing whatsoever to do with the Emperor Charlemagne, and I haven’t managed to find out what the name means (if anybody knows, please let me know). This leads over to the Lairig Ghru, something David had mentioned walking several times in snow as a teenager. Today we weren’t heading up through the gap but instead crossed in a southerly direction and to the top of a hill from which there were panoramic views. We then bounced down a lovely path through trees, coming across a hut hidden in the woods, before getting back to the woods surrounding Loch Morlich. Tricia and Anne jogged back around the eastern end of the Loch while Penny, Jenny and I went a slightly longer route back, all meeting back at the YHA in time for lunch in the garden.

Tricia knows the Cairngorms well – she’s a keen walker and camper, and we benefitted from her knowledge. That afternoon she had a walk planned for us up a hill behind the YHA and then down to the ‘green loch’ or An Lochan Uaine. There was a fairly long climb up, with sculptural trees and heather, and then a strong breeze at the top which almost knocked you off your feet. We then came down the other side and ended up at a bothy before walking along a track to the green loch.

Here it was my turn to stand in the freezing water so Penny could take a photo, but we all agreed it would be a great place to come to for a swim when the water was warmer. We walked to the other end and found a bench erected in memory of a guy, Jim, whom Penny had met many years ago and been impressed with: he worked for the Forestry Commission and ran a B&B near here. She’d mentioned him earlier in the trip so to find a memorial bench to him felt really special.

The track then led back to Glenmore mountain centre, the reindeer centre, and the National Park centre – where there is a memorial to Norwegian soldiers who trained in the area in the second World War (there were also Norwegian links in the YHA).

That evening there was more yoga on the beach, before returning to the YHA to cook dinner and discuss plans for the following day.

I fancied walking some of the Lairig Ghru, and Tricia had some thoughts about a route too. The name of the track – which means nothing more than Hill Pass – had stuck with me ever since I had heard of it from David all those years before – and in fact one day I’d like to do the whole thing from end to end (one end is at the Linn o’ Dee – another memorable name and somewhere else I went many years ago with two very small children. There’s a link here to a blogpost by a group who ran/walked the entire thing in 5-6 hours).

The path is varied: having started on quite wide forest trails, we were soon on single track paths which wiggled through the trees with a springy pine needle surface. Later we came out higher up and were stepping over rocks and through streams. By lunchtime I was getting a bit bored of the path and wanting to know when we were going to stop, but it was well worth the wait as we found a spot by the river, the valley sides reaching far above us and the pass beckoning us to go further over the hills.

We didn’t have time to go further today, and the way back involved re-tracing our footsteps to start with. I jogged ahead of the others a bit, partly to test out how easy or not the path would be to run. It wasn’t dissimilar in some ways to many lake district routes, and having a full stomach definitely put me in a better humour.

After Rothiemurchus Lodge we were back on the forest track, and as Tricia and Penny bonded over trees, plants and wildlife generally, Anne and I chatted about more psychological things (some people might say we were gossiping). We then had a break from being on our feet as Tricia drove us up to the Cairngorm ski lift area to have a look around. Ski areas are so sad in the summer, when there’s no snow and the equipment looks like scars on the landscape rather than the lovely white playground that a ski resort is at its best.

That evening was a lot cooler, so we did yoga in the garden of the YHA before dinner, then went into Aviemore for dinner, and only went down to the beach for post-dinner drinks, well wrapped up.

All too soon our final day had arrived. We managed to have breakfast and pack in surprisingly good time, and Tricia suggested running around the Uath Lochans near the River Feshie. This proved to be an excellent idea: again we all felt it was too cold to swim, though we’d happily go back there sometime, but it was a pretty, wooded landscape with 4 small lochs to run around and a view over towards Loch Insh from one of the higher points.

The excitement hadn’t yet finished, as we stopped to take photos at a stunning gorge, to have a look round Ruthven Barracks (incredibly cold), and then visited the Dalwhinnie Whisky distillery (we didn’t go on a tour, but in the shop I bought some presents for people back home). Our final stop was near Pitlochrie for a drink before completing the final stage of the journey home.

It had been one of the best holidays ever, with a lot of laughter and chat, both light-hearted and serious (Tricia’s question about whether anybody’s watch had the time made me giggle for days after, and highlights the fact that we were all using our watches (Fitbit, Garmin, Polar Flow) to track our steps and route rather than to tell the time (other than Anne who is notoriously bad with IT and whose battery was flat: she was wearing her watch as a fashion accessory); I fell out of the top bunkbed having insisted that I wanted to be at the top; and when we saw the photos of ourselves doing yoga on the beach we all fell about laughing for some inexplicable reason). We all agreed we’d love to go again, and meanwhile Penny and I were talking about possibly changing my ‘swim Snowdon at 60’ challenge to a trip to the Orkneys. I love Scotland.

Whilst a lot of the photos are mine, I must credit Penny, and also Anne, who took the yoga-on-the-beach photos on Penny’s phone (and then joined in with us in the following days).

Going places

We now have ‘the rule of 6’ (or two households) indoors and can hug our friends. Life feels pretty normal, despite the obligatory facemasks, social distancing, track and trace and doing Lateral Flow tests. Certainly our cities, towns and roads seem busy. I can’t remember last May half term – I was furloughed and the kids were being home-schooled when it wasn’t half term – but this May half term has seemed like any ‘normal’ half term. We may not have so many international visitors here, but then neither are UK residents going abroad, instead choosing to explore their own countries.

I rather get the impression that people are getting somewhat fatigued with WhatsApp and virtual communication and are keen to get out and about; particularly to see friends and family in the flesh. It’s helped by the lovely weather which has suddenly – thank goodness – started. Only two weeks ago Penny and I were swimming in Sprinkling and Sty Head Tarns and feeling cold, even in wetsuits; when out running I never knew whether I was going to get soaking wet and be too hot or too cold. Fortunately the sun came out and the weather grew warm, just in time for the half term holiday.

The first trip out was nothing unusual. Bella and I drove down to the western side of Windermere, to find the car park at Wray full but a car on the side of the road just leaving. We slipped into the space and walked down to the lake, which was not only busy with people picnicking and playing games along the shore but also with boats, paddleboards and a horse (which was really enjoying having a splash in the shallow waters of a small bay). The others arrived bit by bit and put on wetsuits; the water was fairly warm and after a bit I peeled off my wetsuit and just went in in my swimsuit. We then lingered in the sun chatting, eating and drinking. Credit for the photos to Mark Britton.

My sister Rachel and her boyfriend Ross then came up on Bank Holiday Monday to stay for the week. Bella was keen to go to Edinburgh to buy pointe shoes so I had booked us into the Ibis Styles hotel in St Andrews Square, and Rachel and Ross had then booked in as well. We travelled up by train and had time to drop our bags off and admire the hotel before meeting Anne at the Scott Memorial. The hotel ticked all the boxes – central; nice rooms (especially the one Bella and I were sharing, which had a bay window with a view of the square and a small sofa in the bay); friendly staff; and good value for money.

After meeting Anne we had lunch in the cafe at the National Gallery, which has an outdoor terrace overlooking Princes Street Gardens (as well as an indoor area); we then walked all the way down to Stockbridge as Anne and Rachel were keen to go to Toast. On the way back we walked past my aunt Janet’s flat in the New Town: when she died we inherited some money, which enabled me to buy my grand piano and also contributed towards a large proportion of my house.

Anne, Bella and I then went shopping. Having a daughter is expensive; having bought her some new clothes in Princes Street, the next day we went to buy pointe shoes and a new leotard for dancing. Walking back we went through the Meadows, which was a part of the city I’d never seen before, and past the University. Bella loved Edinburgh and is now thinking that she might do her clinical year there after her undergraduate medical degree… she’s not yet 16 so her plans may change, though the plan to go to Edinburgh for her 16th birthday probably won’t.

We went to Amarone for dinner that night, generously funded by our Mum. I rashly promised Bella that I’d take her and two of her friends there for her 16th birthday. These photos were taken in the restaurant by Rachel. The food and the cocktails were superb.

The next day we also went to the Botanic Gardens and Valvona and Crolla, before seeing Bella off at the station – she was meeting her Dad and co. to go camping. Rachel, Ross and I headed up into the Old Town and found a tapas bar called Piggs where we had more delicious food and drink before catching our own train.

Edinburgh is a beautiful city and the centre is walkable: if I had to live in a city it would be one of my first choices and always has been, although it’s expensive (I reckoned I could afford a one-bedroom flat). However once we got home and I took Rachel and Ross out on a ‘local tour’, I remembered how much I love living where I do. Ross hadn’t seen Hadrian’s Wall properly before so we went to Chesters Roman Fort. We were then planning on swimming in the river Tyne; having picnicked near Chesters on the banks of the river, I didn’t really fancy swimming there and we decided to go into Hexham to Waitrose and then drive across country to Featherstone. Rachel and Ross prefer more wooded, rolling hills to the rather rugged landscape we have up here, although they admired its openness and space.

They both loved swimming in the south Tyne though, when we eventually found somewhere to park the car and where we could access the river (the road we had wanted to go down was closed, so we stopped a mile or so south of Featherstone itself). I didn’t even bother to put my wetsuit on – it took a while to get used to the water temperature but once I was in I really enjoyed it and swam up and down a few times. It was too shallow to swim much, but very enjoyable: beautifully clear water so you could see the stones clearly, and small black and white fish. Ross’s reaction was much the same as Hannah’s when she had swum at Broomlee Lough – sheer delight – which was gratifying. There really is something profoundly thrilling about wild swimming: it’s partly the closeness to nature; partly the physical tingling sensation of the cold, crystal clear water on your skin; but also, partly, I think, the sense of achievement of having actually done it, particularly when the water is so cold that you have to grit your teeth to get in. I’m looking forward to swimming more and further throughout the summer.

Lockdown 10; furballed 7: travel dreams

A few days ago I was told by work that I’d be returning on 8th June. By then I will have been furloughed for 8 weeks, and I must admit that I’m rather relieved that there will again be some structure and purpose to my day. Today – Monday 1st June – I have been feeling particularly bored with the ongoing situation and whilst I don’t want things to go back exactly to how they were before – although all the signs are that they will, with people already queuing for IKEA as if there was a shortage of furniture and cheap crockery, far more traffic on the roads, and vapour trails in the skies – I’m looking forward to having something to think about and tasks to do.

There will be less time to read, but reading travel books and watching travel programmes on the television is something of a double-edged sword. It’s great to see places and start dreaming about when and how to get there: but sometimes reality hits and you realise that not only is coronavirus stopping travel but also with the debt of my skiing holiday still to pay off, it’s going to be some time before I can afford another holiday anyway!

So whilst I’ve been looking up ways to get to Finland by train, which route I’d take to get there and which to get back, I haven’t actually planned it in much detail. It’s a pipedream as yet and I look at the Railway Map of Europe longingly and wistfully; and dream also of all the other places I’d like to go, such as the ‘stans’. The map below shows how it’s quite possible to get from mainland Europe (and hence, via the channel tunnel, the UK) to Finland and places further east. Also on my bucket list are Tromso in Norway, Copenhagen in Denmark, and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (having watched Michael Portillo’s railway journeys). In fact I’d just like to explore more of Scandinavia, let alone the Baltic states; and getting to places like Baku, Tashkent and Samarkand needs plenty of time (and is therefore probably a retirement project).

I’m now reading a book about those great travellers/explorers, the Vikings, having finished Around the World in 80 Trains and also The Beekeeper of Aleppo. I warmly recommend both books for totally different reasons. The latter serves to remind us of the plight and trauma of refugees throughout the world and of the destruction of beautiful and historic places by war. The former had many comments which seemed relevant to our current status of isolation and of a slower life, but one where – at its best – communities seem(ed) to be pulling together.

One of the words which the author learned as she travelled was the Dutch word gezellig, which apparently means “no boundaries and everyone is sharing and getting along with everyone else”. It reminded me of those other terms which are also not easily translated into English, and which also have a feel good factor to them: the Swedish words fika and lagom and the Danish hygge.

A couple of other quotations from the book which I wanted to highlight were:

“For the first time in months, reading had become meditation again, almost medicinal in its healing. With a last look at the jacket, I left the book on the table for someone else to enjoy.” This is something I do with my books – unless I feel that I’d read them again and again. I leave them on trains for other people to enjoy. And reading is definitely meditation, if not, at least at times, escapism.

“Being on the road frees you from the burden of the everyday… yet I often had moments on my travels when I was overwhelmed by loneliness, and sank into troughs of depression deeper than those I had at home.” This reminds me of when I worked abroad, firstly in France and then in Norway. For the majority of the time I had a fantastic experience and enjoyed myself hugely: but when I got low I got very low, and far more so than I would at home. It’s perhaps because if you’re alone abroad it can be far more difficult to get out of that pit than when you’re at home and surrounded by friends and family.

Selfishness?

One of the things about lockdown however has been that friends and family are not always there. The sense of community increased initially: people looked out for their neighbours, shopped locally, bought local, and didn’t move (on the whole) far beyond their local area. However there was also from the beginning a strong sense of protectiveness, which potentially meant that rather than acting as part of a community, people only protected their own and stayed inside well away from anyone else (I wonder if they would have been quite so moralistic about it if there was no internet, telephone, etc. etc., and if they hadn’t so easily been able to communicate with people?).

I have really struggled with the idea of complete self-isolation: of being a hermit. At its most extreme, as at least one person seemed to suggest, it would have meant not seeing the kids and being on my own in my house and garden: and post-furlough with no work to keep my mind occupied either. I’ve mentioned in earlier blogposts that being able to get out on my bike or for runs (or even walks) has lifted my mood at times: I’ve at times got quite annoyed about how certain judgmental people who are in houses with their own families don’t seem to stop and think what it’s like for people on their own (and in fact the people who are most vociferous about self-isolation are rarely practicing it completely themselves, but are still going to the shops, for example).

The other morning a friend very honestly said that she’s having a rather ‘self-defensive, protective, selfish’ life at the moment, making sure her family are OK, and that she’s scared stiff of getting coronavirus.  I respected and liked her for saying it, and it made me feel a lot better, because I had been thinking that I was the one being selfish because I find the isolation and restrictions of being at home and on my own a lot very hard at times, and I feel criticised for going out at all.

I guess at the end of the day we’re all dealing with this in our own way and a certain amount of tolerance and understanding wouldn’t go amiss. I am quite happy limiting the number of times I go to the shops, and I don’t miss ‘going shopping’ in terms of visiting High Streets. But cut me off from the Fells and woods, lakes and rivers and I would be utterly miserable.

That’s not to say I’m jumping into my car to visit Lake District hotspots – I wouldn’t dream of walking up Cat Bells at the moment, and the sides of Ullswater as I drove past on a sunny Sunday were like any normal (non-viral) summer holiday. But the joy from being able to go for a walk in one of the less well-known areas and to swim in several of the lakes was a real treat at the weekend: and whilst parking areas were busy, if you avoid the ‘honeypots’ then it is easy to socially distance.

Beautiful, quiet Hayeswater

It annoys me when people leave litter, park and/or drive inconsiderately, and don’t bother to think about where they could go which might not be so crowded: but on the other hand I also think there is an element of nimby-ism to the so-called locals who complain so bitterly about visitors to this beautiful county that we’re lucky enough to live in. We are privileged to live here and not in a densely populated city but if people want to enjoy the beauty then they should also respect it.

It feels as if the end of furlough and the gradual relaxation of lockdown may signal the end not only of this series of posts, but also of this blog: I need to think of a theme for the next one as it feels as if I’m writing about similar things now. Next week I will try to sum up the change in the emotions from the beginning of lockdown to the end of furlough. Meanwhile… stay safe.

A Brave New World?

There are plenty of people saying the same sorts of things as I’m about to say in this post: but I still feel it’s important to write it. After all, if enough of us say it perhaps it will actually happen.

I was talking to two friends today; as I have been speaking to many people since lockdown. Even prior to lockdown I wanted to do something about the environment: working in the property industry I have long tried to push for more sustainable development, and have tried to learn more about how to ensure new buildings are environmentally friendly and, just as importantly, and perhaps more challengingly, how to bring our huge stock of old buildings up to modern standards.

In the early 1990s there was a significant recession in Britain, with property values dropping drastically, it seemed almost overnight. I remember questioning at the time with a fellow surveyor why we always had to have economic growth. It seemed to me that there was a huge pressure on people to make things quickly in order to create huge amounts of money in order to pay shareholders huge dividends., and a constant increase in goods and services just didn’t seem sustainable. A few years later I remember walking through a shop just before Christmas and it hitting me hard how much ‘stuff’ there was – far too much choice and far more than any of us needed.

I’m no paragon when it comes to not having stuff, but I definitely feel less need of ‘stuff’ than I used to: and I’ve always felt strongly that we shouldn’t waste resources, and should recycle as much as possible. What was heartening from one of the conferences I was ‘at’ recently was hearing that young people nowadays don’t want stuff – they want experiences (though I’m not sure my teenage daughter would agree: however for my teenage son ‘experiences’ make good presents).

It would seem that the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the speed of change on the High Street: more online shopping is being done (for obvious reasons) and if there really is a move towards buying experiences rather than stuff then perhaps – once we can be less socially distant again – our High Streets will more and more become the focus for communities and for people to relax and socialise.

However people have to get to their High Streets and at the moment there has been more emphasis on walking to local shops and buying local. It would be great for all these small businesses economically if that continued; but it would also be better for the environment if we didn’t all leap back into our cars.

Unfortunately I think we’re going to feel safer in our vehicles than on public transport, but as one of my friends pointed out today, if local authorities could tap into the current demand for cycling – and make it safer for people to cycle – that would help. The possibility of people working from home more and cycling when they do need to get to work could be a huge change in the world: and people would be healthier.

I think perhaps the demand for offices will also decrease: it’s been shown how well we can all work from home, and whilst the need and desire for face-to-face meetings will continue, will we ever really want to go back to all having to commute to work and work in the same room as a bunch of other people? We can save so much time and energy by not commuting too: my train journey to work takes about an hour and a half each way, and I really appreciate the extra time I have (to run, do yoga and have a proper breakfast and dinner) when I’m not having to commute. I am calmer and my shoulders are less tense.

There is a golden opportunity here. I just hope enough of us want to grasp it, so that something positive comes out of the sadness of coronavirus. It’s about time we human beings changed our greedy ways. Let’s take note of Sir David Attenborough and not waste things; and of Sir Michael Palin and have holidays closer to home: and at least take our time and go by train if we go abroad.

Memories of Finland

0202-2020 until 09022020

I have fond memories of cross-country skiing in Norway. For about 2 and a half months I was based at a hotel at Venabu, in the Rondane hills just north of Lillehammer, and skied everyday. There was one week when I had no clients and felt rather lonely until I made friends with a German – Joachim – with whom I skied part of the Troll Loype, as well as in a blizzard. I’ve written about that elsewhere (and I wish now I’d replied to his postcard sent several months later).

So when Tricia and Helen from my running group – Head Torches round the Tarn – said ‘how about going skiing’, I suggested cross-country skiing in Finland. As it turned out Tricia couldn’t come – she was invited on a holiday to Morocco – but Helen, Penny, Anne and Mark and I booked on.

Christmas came and went and suddenly it was February and time to get up in the early hours and drive down to Manchester airport. Despite being at work so early and having to deal with people’s incompetence (e.g. me driving into the wrong car park), all the airport staff were really friendly, cheerful and helpful.

Landing at Kittila was interesting as the runway was a bit snow-covered. I wondered whether pilots brake more gently and try to touch down earlier, so they can take longer to come to a stop, and don’t skid? We also had an engineer on board – apparently normal when you’re going to ultra-cold snowy areas.

A minibus took us to our hotel, driving along snow-covered roads with deep snow-covered landscape and trees around us. The trees looked slimmer than at home due to the weight of snow on the branches, and they’re more spaced out, in part as they grow more slowly. Even though the sky was grey, the light reflecting off the snow made everything seem lighter than it would on a rainy English day: and of course we felt positive and excited due to our early-holiday-excitement.

Our rooms at the hotel were great, and having unpacked we walked out to visit the local supermarket. I really liked the look of a Finnish skincare range called Lumene; the others stocked up on crisps, nuts and tonic water (Helen and Penny had already bought gin in Duty Free and we had brought wine boxes with us). As we walked back to the hotel Mark and I were saying how surreal Lapland seemed; it still felt a bit like Christmas, or Narnia, in a lovely non-commercial, unspoilt, way. Back at the hotel our good moods continued with pre-dinner drinks and we headed into an early dinner ready, after our long day travelling, for an early night.

Waking up on Monday it was still pitch black and we commented on how short the days were going to be: at home we were just about beginning to feel spring-like – as I walked from the office to the station a few evenings earlier I had noticed that it was only just growing dark, rather than already dark. In Finland – especially this far north, inside the Arctic circle – sunrise was at about 8.30 a.m. and sunset about about 4.15 p.m. Our feet crunched on the snow as we went into the dining room for an enormous breakfast. On the way back we went into the ski room to fetch our skis.

Boots have changed a bit since I skied in Norway – 25 years ago – when I had leather boots, but I was excited to see that the skis were much the same and are still waxed. I love the smell of the warm wax!

Once the skis were ready we walked down to lake Akaslompolo to try them out. I was relieved to find I was still relatively competent – I wasn’t sure if whether, after a gap of 25 years, I might have completely forgotten what to do – and the others were picking it up quickly. After a bit Anne said “let’s ski all round the lake” – so we did, clear blue skies above us and crisp white snow at our feet. We had booked a lesson for the afternoon and so at 2.30 Kimmo, our teacher, took us up and down some little slopes and then out along the ‘floodlit trail’ which goes around part of the lake. We didn’t get far but he told us some good routes to do the following day.

Our final ‘experience’ of the day was to go to the sauna. The accepted practice is to go in naked but, unlike when I was in Austria, at least the Finnish have single-sex saunas. It also seems quite normal to leave the sauna wrapped in nothing but a towel to walk back across the snow to your room (cabin): something we weren’t to try until a bit later in the week, although Anne and Mark embraced it sooner than the rest of us.

It became our daily routine to go to the sauna after skiing and then go back to the rooms for pre-dinner drinks, followed by dinner and then more drinks and cards after dinner. It sounds like a lot of drinking, but in fact there was a plentiful supply of water and juices in the dining room and I found that I was drinking water more than anything else. Despite a glass or two of wine each day and sometimes a gin, and despite an enormous breakfast and dinner of several courses, I felt healthier than I had for ages.

On the Tuesday Mark and Anne said they’d rather do their own thing in the morning than feel bad about holding the rest of us up, so we agreed to go our separate ways for the morning and then meet up at lunchtime. Penny, Helen and I skied along the side of the lake and then took a trail up through the trees, which Kimmo had recommended. It was hillier and prettier than we’d skied before, and included dropping down over a frozen river – where we stopped for photos and realised that it was so cold – minus 28 degrees C – that even our eyelashes were icing up!

Before long we arrived at Navetta Galleria, a cafe which had been recommended as a good stopping point on this trail. We loved it: we made the mistake of not only having a hot drink but also cake. Mine was a doughnut-type thing called a Munkki (one thing I’ve noticed about Finnish is its love of double vowels and double consenants). There were also crafts and artwork for sale, and the history of the building as a family home was told in panels and pictures. Going outside into the cold with full stomachs wasn’t appealing…

We liked the cafe so much we decided that Anne and Mark really needed to come up there too, and we felt sure they’d cope with the shorter return journey as an ‘out and back’; they did love it and Anne bought a Father Christmas/gnome-type felt figure. Helen, Penny and I skied up there, via a different route, the following morning as well.

Dinner on Tuesday evening included a very tasty and quite delicate Elk Meatloaf. Later in the week I had Shoulder of Elk in (I think) a game sauce. I am a complete convert to Elk meat! We also had reindeer, and Arctic Char – a delicious fish which of course in the UK is incredibly rare (it apparently occurs in some Lake District lakes, although has become extinct in some, and also in lakes and lochs in Scotland). In fact the food overall was absolutely superb, and Anne and Helen generally had 3 different desserts each night!

Despite sunset being relatively early each evening, we never quite managed to ski back along the illuminated track once the lights were on – it took until the last day of the holiday, when Helen went out on her own, for anyone to do so. But we were out for plenty of sunsets, all of which were absolutely gorgeous – varying shades of pink looking lovely against the white snow, the hills silhouetted against the pale sky. And then of course we were hoping to see the Northern Lights…

On the Thursday Anne and Mark were planning a long walk (they had only had 3 days of ski hire anyway), so Penny, Helen and tried out another new route in an easterly direction, towards a smaller lake – Kesankjarvi (‘jarvi’ I concluded, means ‘lake’). It was snowing lightly and there was a breeze blowing snow in shallow drifts across tracks, so coming back we had no choice but to go up a ‘red’ trail uphill rather than along a blue. Penny took her skis off and RAN the last bit!

The reward was a glorious, roller-coaster ‘blue’ run straight downhill – until a wiggle at the end where Helen fell over and Penny, unable to avoid her, then fell over too. A lot of mirth ensued and, looking back at them, I then fell over going uphill! Before long we had arrived back in Akaslompolo where we went into a bakery near the supermarket and had – you’ve guessed it – coffee and cake – before going into the supermarket to pick up some presents.

After dinner we played our regular games of contract whist (I kept losing) while one or the other of us kept nipping outside to check whether the northern lights had appeared – we’d missed them at midnight the night before (which was annoying as I’d actually been awake but hadn’t even thought of looking outside). At about 10.30p.m. Mark came back in and said – in a very low-key, calm, English manner – “you may all want to come outside”.

To start with the aurora wasn’t actually all that impressive – it just looked like some wispy white clouds. However as we watched it grew, brightened and moved, even changing colour and ‘dancing’. Helen and Penny both got some great photos; and from speaking to people later it was apparently a really great example of the Lights. We were so lucky to see them.

The following morning – Friday – Helen, Penny and I had booked on another lesson. I was rather hoping it would be Kimmo, our male teacher from earlier in the week, but it ended up being a girl called Elke who English was absolutely excellent. Penny turned back early in the lesson as her foot was hurting, and Helen and I had quite a snappy lesson past Navetta Galleria, over the bridge and frozen river, and back down between the trees.

We’d worked up some warmth and Helen had the sense to have a shower and get into dry clothes when we got back: I didn’t, which turned out to be foolish as that afternoon we were going to a husky farm to go dog-sledding. I had done this one evening in Norway for a short distance, my main memory being of falling head first off the sleigh into the snow and the dogs being so well-trained that they all pulled up short immediately. The others were really keen to go and the experience entailed a 9km drive/ride through the snow. I got colder and colder and so when it got to the halfway point I was more than happy to let Penny carry on driving while I stayed wrapped up in the sledge!

We’d promised the Head Torches bunch at home that we’d go for a run in Finland, and had all packed running shoes, so when we got back from dog sledding Mark, Penny and I headed out along the floodlit trail. I turned back after a short distance but the other two continued and did a short loop. Running on snow, even fairly hard-packed snow, isn’t all that easy (and I was beginning to feel quite tired by this stage in the holiday).

By Saturday Helen and I were the only two wanting to ski. Mark and Anne did a hilly 25km walk while Penny walked to Velhonkta and back: Helen and I skied along some lovely red and blue trails to get there as well, where there was another cafe. In total we had skied about 12 km when we got back again and I was ready for a rest: Helen then went out to the supermarket and skied back along the floodlit trail, this time actually lit up.

At dinner time we had been discussing the best and worst points of each day: over our final dinner we debated the best and worst points of the holiday. There were very few low points. That evening we all went to the bar, where I tried to learn some Finnish – not that easy for an English-speaker to learn as it’s so very different in structure and sound from most of the languages we learn. I think the only word I can now remember is ‘kiitos’ (thank you).

As we eventually took off from Kittila on the Sunday – late, as storm Ciara was raging over England and parts of western Europe – I felt quite tearful. I had loved being in Finland: it’s one of those places where I felt I’d really like to spend more time and live, rather than just visit. However next time I’d like to travel there by train (and bus – the train lines stop at Rovaniemi or Kolari): something which was confirmed when landing in Manchester was slightly hairy due to storm Ciara.

I was glad we landed when we did: storms buffeted Britain for most of February, resulting in endless rain and flooding. And then of course by early March we were facing coronavirus and the possibility of a global pandemic, restricting travel world-wide. We were lucky to get to Finland and back when we did.

Please note – not all the photos were taken by me, but I can’t remember who took them all!

Surrealism on holiday

Travelling is weird. By its very nature it has to be: a holiday should take you out of your comfort zone and away from normality and routine. How far you step out of your comfort zone is up to you: there are those who still want to feel comfortable, who want British bars and pubs in English-speaking resorts, and for whom the main change is warmer, drier weather and no work.

At the other extreme are the explorers: those who spend weeks or months (maybe even years) travelling, perhaps in some discomfort and in challenging conditions.

I’m somewhere in between. I want to experience something of a foreign culture, and I love hearing a foreign language or languages around me.

It starts often with the outgoing flight. I’m not quite sure why so many holiday flights leave so early in the morning, but there’s an other-worldly quality to getting up in the middle of the night and making your way to the departures desks. Airports by then are wide awake and bustling, while the rest of the (local) world sleeps. I’ll always remember walking across the car park from the airport hotel at Newcastle with my parents and three small children, when we went to Chamonix. Edward, at just 4 years old, insisted on pulling a suitcase. Going to Finland I drove into the wrong car park at Manchester: instead of a grumpy, surly, half awake voice, a cheery male voice just told me to drive back round to the exit, and then gave me directions to the right car park.

Flying itself is then also surreal. You’re either up above the clouds in bright blue sky and could be anywhere and nowhere, suspended in time and space; or you can see the earth laid out below you like a map. Personally I prefer the latter as I like trying to work out where I am. Sometimes there’s a bit of both: you look down through wispy clouds and see the snow-clad summits of the Alps below, or the clouds briefly part and you realise that the white down below is not more cloud but the snow covered landscape of Norway, Iceland or Greenland. Twinkling lights below highlight motorways or the coast, or cities: I remember flying along the south coast of England at night towards Bournemouth, seeing Gatwick to the north and a chain of illumination along the south coast.

Sometimes the sun rises as you fly. I always prefer a window seat: perhaps because it takes my mind off the worry of flying.

Within hours you have given up your regular everyday life for somewhere new. There’s the excitement, mixed with a little apprehension, an arriving. At Kittila there appeared to be no transfer to take us to our hotel: a helpful rep. from Inghams chased it up for us and before long we were on our way, bowling along snow- and ice-covered roads which would bring traffic to a halt in the UK, our driver regaling us with stories of how part of the road is used for emergency aircraft landings. Already we’re out of our comfort zone as he zips past lorries and coaches coming in the other direction on what seem like narrow icy tracks.

Finland – or rather Lapland – is very beautiful. It’s so easy to see why it’s the home of Father Christmas. A thick layer of snow and ice covers everything, the trees looking elegantly slim with their white coats weighing down their branches. Fairy lights twinkle around the airport, the hotels, the log cabins set among the trees; Moomintroll-like figures loom out of the snow clumped into curvy sculptures. You expect any moment to fur-clad bewhiskered reindeer drivers, or for the White Witch to appear, Narnia-style.

Putting skis on your feet for the first time or after a long break is also strange. They slip and slide away from you with a mind of their own, and going downhill can feel scarily out of control. I was glad and relieved that I could basically remember what to do and that skiing began to feel again like a normal, and sensible, way to travel around on snow (if at times it felt like hard work). We have so little snow and ice in the UK that we rarely have to learn to glide rather than to step.

Walking and skiing among the trees is a little like being in Cumbria, although the trees are naturally more spaced out and are all spruce, pine, etc. I love the Scots Pines: their twisty golden branches in contrast to the bendy spruce. The fells are not as high as the Cumbrian fells, but are gentle knolls – the highest near us was about 700m. Even so, it’s hard work skiing uphill, even if you’re not going very high.

There are also the sounds. The gentle thwack and glide of the skis; the silence when you stop to listen; or the alien quality of Finnish, which has no relation to languages such as German, French or Italian and yet which the Finns chat away in before switching easily to English. We are incredibly spoilt, us English-speakers, but it’s still nice when travelling abroad to pick up some of the local words. Unfortunately the only word of Finnish which stuck in my head was ‘kiitos’ (thank you), despite having been told ‘cheers’, ‘very good’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘goodnight’ (I also realised that ‘jarvi’ is ‘lake’ and I bought something called a Munkki, which is a type of doughnut). I’m very curious now to know what the grammatical structure is like as apparently it’s similar to Japanese – in other words completely and utterly alien to any language I have ever learnt.

A renowned Nordic custom is of course the sauna. Initially we were rather hesitant about going in the snow afterwards, but the day the outdoor hot tub was on we had to walk from there across the snow to the sauna. Unless you don’t mind wet shoes (or have flipflops), then the quickest and best option is just to make a semi-naked sprint for it. Having done that, walking back from the sauna to our room wrapped in a towel and nothing else other than boots, socks and pants, was actually very refreshing. It’s also not at all the done thing to be British and wear a swimsuit in the sauna.

In terms of food, while there are plenty of cloudberries, ligonberries, reindeer and elk on the menu, the cuisine is, not surprisingly, quite mixed – and delicious. Once when I went to Munich I was incredibly disappointed by the food, which seemed to consist mostly of meatloaf or cake. In contrast our hotel in Finland had a superb range of salads and fruit as well as fish (Arctic Char was lovely), meat and potatoes.

As the plane leaves the ground to come home I often feel a little tearful: partly from relief that we are safely off the ground and partly from sadness at saying ‘goodbye’. Some places you know you won’t visit again: Finland is one of those I hope very much that I do.

p.s. several years ago a friend of mine went to Helsinki for a running race, with a group. He came back saying how very friendly the Finnish were. I wasn’t sure I believed him at the time, as why should any one nation be any friendlier than another? However it’s true – a lot of the Finnish have friendly, smiling faces, and they seem to be ready to smile and to help at any time. Even the ‘ski etiquette’ signs say you should always stop to help someone who needs it.

The Lake District: on two wheels and two feet

The first time I ever visited the Lake District was for a mountain biking weekend one cold but sunny November. It was the days before digital cameras, so the photo of me falling into a stream as I tried to cycle through it is buried in an album somewhere: but what I do remember is that the weather was beautiful and that I immediately fell in love with the area.

Living in Cumbria (it’s 12 years next month), I still love the county and a trip to the Lakes usually engenders feelings of going on holiday, even if only for a half day. There’s also plenty I have yet to explore and to learn.

Despite my pre-children mountain biking weekends all those years ago, I haven’t cycled much in the area. So when my friend Jeremy suggested a 20-mile bike ride in Borrowdale and around Derwentwater I accepted eagerly.

He picked up my bike, Edward and me in his van and having dropped Edward at school we drove down to Keswick. As we cycled up the Borrowdale valley I thought back to running around and swimming in Derwentwater, and how each activity gives a slightly different aspect to the lake and its valley. The river near Grange was higher than it had been when Penny and I ran from Grange to Seatoller and back but whilst it was cooler, the weather was dry. We stopped to admire the Bowder Stone, which I hadn’t seen before, and its new steps, as someone Jeremy knows had something to do with them. I tried to imagine Victorian women in crinolines climbing up to admire the view, parasols in hand, and was glad to be clad in flexible lycra.

We cycled as far as the NT farm and cottages at Seathwaite before turning round and retracing our wheels to Grange. Here we turned to the west to go up the road that runs along the foot of Cat Bells, and I thought back to swimming in Derwentwater below there just a few months ago. I have loads of similar photos but it’s such a lovely view and one of my favourite lakes, by now dressed in its autumnal colours. How rapidly the seasons change and the temperature drops: various hardy swimmers are still open water swimming (without wetsuits) even now, and will continue throughout the winter, but I’m not yet anything like acclimatised!

We cycled back through Portinscale, discussing wanting to try some of the mountain passes and debating which would be the best to try first, and arrived back in Keswick in plenty of time for cake (Jeremy) and smashed avocado (etc. – me). On the way home we dropped into Rheged to look at Jeremy’s exhibit in a national landscape exhibition: I’ll leave the photos to tell their own story. I love the way Rheged have positioned it so the light creates a map in the shadow.

Only a short while later and I was down in the Lake District again, this time based at Monk Coniston for an assessment weekend to see whether I’d be good enough to be a walking holiday leader. As I drove down – over the Kirkstone Pass, as I love that route and it’s the most direct – the sun was setting and there was Windermere below me, shining as the sun went down. I never tire of getting to the top of the Kirkstone Pass and seeing the lake all the way down below me – I rarely stop to take a photo though.

I felt a little apprehensive about the weekend but before long Rachel, the other woman on the assessment (there were 3 men as well), and I were chatting away, comparing notes about 3 children, being divorced and life generally.

The following day the two of us were walking with Paul while the 3 men went off with a different assessor. We headed in a north-westerly direction up the Yewdale valley, alongside the Yewdale Beck for much of the way and seeing lots of remains of mines and quarries – we stopped for coffee in one, gazing around a corner at snow on the higher fells. There was a real feeling of human industry having returned to nature.

That evening was night navigation and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours trying to find our way in the dark up to Tarn Hows and back. I realised that either the battery on my headtorch was getting a bit low (it’s rechargeable) or I need a better headtorch; and we ‘calibrated’ my paces – I now know that c.63 of my double paces equals 100m.

The following day all 5 of us ‘candidates’ were out together with two assessors, starting at the New Dungeon Ghyll and walking up towards the Langdale Pikes. I had never walked further than the first waterfalls and pools before, and the stunning weather – the sky was a vivid cloudless blue until the afternoon – combined with the beauty of the fells made for a hugely enjoyable walk. I’m really looking forward to next summer and swimming in Stickle Tarn; there was also a small pool looking over Stickle Tarn: both reflected the sky and fells like mirrors. One day I shall do the entire Pavey Ark – Harrison Stickle – Pike of Stickle walk.

As we walked back down I could see Blea Tarn in the distance, and again thought back to swimming there not so very long ago. We could also see Windermere and Morecambe Bay, including Heysham power station; there’s something very gratifying about being able to orientate yourself because you recognise landscape features.

While writing this I’m studying the map again and my eyes are caught by ‘Castle Howe’ and ‘Ting Mound’ at the eastern end of the Wrynose Pass (the pass of my 3-hour wait for the breakdown lorry after swimming in Wastwater). Googling what they were, I discover that this could be an iron age fort of some sort and that the Ting Mound was used in the 7th-9th centuries as an open air meeting place. Apparently the route through Wrynose Pass might have been in use since neolithic times.

Perhaps this is what appeals to me most of all about living in this fairly remote, underpopulated part of the UK. The relative lack of development means that history of all periods surrounds you: the neolithic route and iron age hill fort; the roads, forts and great wall of the Romans; the names of Saxon and Viking settlements; the ruined castles of medieval times; the industrial archaeology of the Elizabethans and Georgians; and the tourism industry which more or less started with Wordsworth and continues to this day. The multiple layers of varying waves of human interest and influence; but over it all nature continuing with its own awe-inspiring beauty, ranging from the grandeur of the highest fells to the delicacy of a mountain flower.

London: walking through memories

My Devon aunt and uncle – who are extremely well-travelled – went to London to Kensington Palace, and reported on Facebook about seeing Princess Diana’s dresses.  I realised that despite living in London when I was younger for about 14 years, I’d never been to Kensington Palace (or even Kensington Palace Gardens). I hadn’t even realised it was open to the public. 

A few days later Virgin trains sent me an offer of 40% off train fares.  On an impulse, I checked out how much it was going to cost to get down to London and back in a day (I’d been down to London and back in a day for work, so I knew it that a day trip from one end of the country to the other was actually OK by train – it’s really quick to get from Carlisle to London as the trains don’t stop much so you can do the trip in about 3 hours 15).  It was such a bargain I booked the tickets then and there, plus a ticket to Kensington Palace – which not only had an exhibition of Diana’s dresses but also of costumes from The Favourite, a film about Queen Anne which I was interested in seeing.  I also arranged to meet another aunt, who lives in London and who I have seen very few times since moving to Cumbria (and having three children, despite having been close to her when I was younger – she was always quite a role model for me, along with another aunt who lived in Edinburgh. They both demonstrated that you could be single and have an interesting life: that women are definitely not dependant on some man or other for their happiness… an old-fashioned view I know but my parents demonstrated that being a couple was what made life worth living…).

So at about 6.30 on a cold winter Saturday morning I was standing at Carlisle station waiting for the London train.  The train goes through all sorts of places with which I have connections: Warrington, where NWDA’s head office was; past stretches of the Grand Union canal which I dealt with when I was at British Waterways; Watford which was my home for 6 or 7 years; Wembley where I worked for Brent Council.  As we travelled further south the sky grew lighter and the snow lying on the ground heavier; it always feels as if there’s something wrong when it’s snowier and colder in the south than in the northern border counties (what I like to think of as the ‘real’ north – Manchester is two hours south of me and yet to a southern – which I was until I was 40-something – Manchester and the industrial areas around there was the north. How wrong I was!).

From Euston I decided to walk to Kensington Palace.  It was a trip through the past, without being in any sort of chronological order.  I crossed the road opposite 355 Euston Road, where Railtrack Property once had its offices; I remembered looking out of the window and seeing the demolition ball swinging and the walls coming down of a building on the northern side of the road. There’s now a swanky new office development there, with cafes and restaurants around a central square.

At Portland Street station there was still a minimarket.  I sometimes used to walk along there to buy a sandwich and a bottle of Oasis for lunch.  We’d also often have pool cars and be heading out this way by car on site visits; the office had a garage underneath which was where I parked my bike when I cycled to work, from Beckenham up through Crystal Palace, round Elephant & Castle roundabout, round Trafalgar Square, and up Charing Cross and Tottenham Court Road, racing cyclists who jumped the red lights while I virtuously stopped.

I crossed Portland Place – memories of going to see friends who worked at Broadcasting House and sometimes seeing famous faces in the canteen – and headed past various mews.  One of them had once had a building which Westminster City Council owned, which I let to Crisis at Christmas.  It’s been redeveloped now – I wasn’t even sure which mews it had been in.  At Marylebone Road I had a vague recollection of being somewhere for a London Junior Branch meeting of the RICS; I admired the shops and thought how I’d all too rarely visited this street, which was somewhere I visited I think on my very first visit to London. At the age of 6 my mother had taken me to London and we’d met a friend of hers and had lunch at the Cordon Bleu cookery school. 

As I moved further west I was reminded how cosmopolitan London is, which was one of the things I’ve always loved about it.  The Turkish restaurants changed to Lebanese and Middle Eastern on Edgware Road, the air smelling sweetly of something which I suspect may not have been totally legal, men of a middle eastern demeanour sitting outside drinking coffee, discussing matters and sometimes smoking. I was pleased to see that Seymour Leisure Centre, which I’d dealt with when I was at Westminster City Council, has had its 30 metre swimming pool restored: one of the tasks I had had was commissioning valuation work to see if part of the site could be redeveloped for residential units in order to fund the necessary repairs needed to the pool hall.  I was tempted to walk in and ask to have a look round but didn’t.  After all, it was 25 years ago or more.

I dropped down Edgware Road past shops and restaurants with signs in Arabic, to cross over into Hyde Park at Marble Arch.  Where the cinema and hotel used to be is being redeveloped, but on the whole the streetscape of this part of London had changed remarkably little since I had last walked, cycled or driven around here. 

Hyde Park was where I ran my first ever 10 km race – in just under 50 minutes, much to my surprise at the time – and plenty of runners were out today enjoying the winter sun.  A father ran past pushing a running buggy, asking his child in French if he/she were ready to go home; groups of French tourists of various ages milled around; a lady walked past in the opposite direction speaking German into her phone.  Later on as I travelled back on the tube a group of Italians was talking near me: I love the multi-culturalism of London, where everybody rubs shoulders whether they live in the capital or are visitors.

At Kensington Palace it was interesting to see where initially William & Mary (‘the Orange’ – 1066 and all that) and later George II and Queen Caroline had entertained their court, or had some private time, and to see the costumes from The Favourite.  But Diana’s dresses were, to be honest, just a bunch of evening dresses with queues of people staring at them; and the ‘Victoria revealed’ exhibition which I’d thought would be interesting wasn’t open.  The shop had some rather expensive and quite nice things to buy and the café was full.  I bought some chocolate for my kids, a book for my Mum and a couple of small gifts for my London-Aunt and then headed away, grabbing a sandwich from a nice Italian snack bar in the gardens en route, fending off the starlings who were begging for crumbs.

Funny how when I go on the tube I resort to being the person I always used to be on the tube – impatient to pass people, walking or running up escalators – and that I still mostly remember which tube lines to take where and which stations to change at.  It took me remarkably little time to get to my aunt’s in Hampstead and I spent a lovely afternoon having a long chatty catch-up with her and eating cake. In fact really that was the best part of the day and the best reason for going to London.

I was back at Euston in plenty of time for the train.  Whilst in the morning I’d been smiling to myself as I walked across London in the sunshine, now I smiled to myself as I got on my train.  I love rail travel: the mainline trains always feel quite luxurious as you speed from the bottom of the country to the top; and I’ll be home before the evening is even that old.  Coniston tomorrow.

NB. Footnote: Coniston (running round it) didn’t happen as it was -5 overnight and my car handbrake wouldn’t release. Probably just as well as Penny and I ran just over 10 miles around Ridge Woods, up the Dandy and through Gelt Woods instead and from beautifully snowing it turned to rain and ice – and conditions in the Lakes are possibly worse than up here.

Comfort Zones

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I’ve never really been one to stay in my comfort zone for too long: though people’s attitude to me has varied between ‘what the hell are you doing that for – are you an idiot?’ and ‘good for you’.  Funny, isn’t it – how people’s reactions to the things we do can be so diametrically opposed.  Just confirms that you have to do what your own heart/ head/ senses/ conscience tell you to do, not what other people think you should do, as some people will think you are right and some – probably, if it was analyzed, about 50% – will think you are wrong.

I can’t remember the first time I stepped outside my comfort zone and did something someone thought I shouldn’t, but I do remember my father saying something along the lines of daughters doing incomprehensible, rash things like switching to degree courses in subjects such as music.  I also remember a musical friend saying with surprise, about one of my music essays, “you sounded as if you knew what you were talking about – even though I knew you had no idea what a diminished 9th was” (actually, I might have known what a diminished 9th was – I probably looked it up purely for the purposes of the essay).

Later on of course I went for a safe-ish option and became a chartered surveyor.  At that point the unemployment rate for surveyors was very low, although to become chartered as a non-cognate graduate and as a woman (shock, horror – ‘they’ didn’t even approve of women wearing trousers to work when I began my surveying career in 1986!) was more unusual.  Someone from one of the long-established West End firms wrote in response to my job request, that they might have a job going managing their fleet cars – and that they (he) thought that often it was best if people ‘stuck to their own last’.

That sort of comment was, of course, guaranteed to make me stick to becoming a chartered surveyor rather than giving up – as with the guy who I had worked with previously who said what on earth made me think I’d stick to it when I’d stuck to nothing else work-wise up until then… what made me stick to it was that I had something to prove, not only to other people but also to myself.

After about 8 years in surveying I’d had enough however and decided to chuck it all in and go to work as a holiday rep., firstly in France (where I would have liked to have stayed) and then in Norway.  My father said “You’re not to give up a well-paid secure job to become a holiday rep.”.  Did I take any notice?  I had no mortgage, no children… and left a job paying £30,000 pa for one paying about £3,000 pa.  I had a great time and have seen bits of rural France that I shall probably never see again – and I could also speak fluent French when I got back.  My French is no longer fluent, but it gave me a confidence in speaking it which I think probably also helped with, later on, learning Italian.

I fell into a comfort zone after that though – my career progressed; I bought a flat; I earned (compared to my mortgage) a lot of money.  Then I met David, settled down, had children, moved to Cumbria… life was steady.

Or was it?  Don’t you think Life has a way of surprising you?  I am well aware that it really cannot be planned for – some things you wish for do indeed happen, but the effects of them are never quite what you expect and there are all the other things which happen which you didn’t even dream of (or the things you wished for happen, but turn out then to follow a different path from the one you’d expected or hoped for).

So there I was, plodding along, doing a job, taking redundancy as I hated the job and assumed I would just walk into another one as I always had… and I ended up pregnant, aged 48/49.  The creative side of me, which had been somewhat under wraps since graduating, had started rearing its head as well: I was singing and writing and started doing more of both.  The baby arrived, and provided a huge amount of joy and a fair amount of media interest.

Then my husband left.  After a few months of adjusting to it and having unexpectedly inherited a bit of money, I found I wanted to spread my wings and enjoy my new-found freedom and my 45% child-free time.   About a year later I got a job as a surveyor again, having thought I’d never go back to it, and had the most passionate and intense love affair of my life, with a guy who tapped right into the essence of me – the creative, free me which had been trying to escape the comfort zone for so long.

And now… after the pain (I still miss him); the acceptance (my kids have to come first) and the realisation (I am a creative person, and a people person)… I am about to step out of my comfort zone again.  I have a new job as a part-time chef, and am about to start a catering course in September.  Because of time restraints it is unlikely, come September, that I shall work as a surveyor again – after 30-odd years in the profession.

But, as I said in my college interview, I have 12 to 15 years of working life left.  I want, and intend, them to be enjoyable and (therefore) successful.  On an emotional level it feels as if I’m doing the right thing; on a practical level it also makes sense as there is far more demand for chefs than there is for surveyors and I have experience (e.g. in management and also in promotion) which is transferable.  I may go ‘backwards’ initially (in terms of starting again at the bottom, having to retrain, and not earning much) but it’s in order to go forwards more.  And the opportunities and openings are enormous – I wanted to live and work in France but didn’t manage it – becoming a chef my only restraint to where I work is my children.  There’s also a whole history to how I got to this stage, but it’s not necessarily relevant: suffice to say that when a friend suggested I get a job as a chef I mulled it over and eventually realised that she was talking a lot of sense and picking up on something which had been within me for a while.

She also suggested I start a supper club, so that’s exactly what I’ve done, with the profit going to charity.  If you feel like ‘sharing’ this and encouraging friends who live in or who are visiting Cumbria to come along, it would be great if you could – I would love to get really booked up.  And guess what… my new website also has a blog!

Visit: Brampton Supper Club

(and on Facebook: Facebook page for Brampton Supper Club)

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties

– Erich Fromm

flowers for courage

Up in the hills

I was having a debate with a friend the other day about relaxation in a city vs. being up a hill.  Once upon a time I would have been completely with her: a city break, particularly in one of the big, buzzy cities of the world, would have been one of my ideal get-away from it and unwind opportunities.

Or would it?  I loved living in London initially and even when we moved to Cumbria I missed the excitement and bustle of a city, and would regularly dash over to John Lewis in Newcastle for an urban fix.  But even so, as a child I used to enjoy standing at the top of a hill with the wind in my hair – I just didn’t do it very often.  As soon as I discovered skiing that became my annual holiday of choice; and it wasn’t long after that that I started mountain biking, then got fitter, improved my swimming, and began to enjoy outdoor activities which entailed being in hills and mountains rather than in a city.

It took me years to make the decision to move away from urban life, but as soon as it was made, when David and I decided to move to Cumbria, and we were in Cumbria, we knew it was the right decision.  I remember the first time we ran in Gelt Woods, and the rush of excitement and freedom – the closest thing you can get to flying without any mechanical assistance – of running down the hill near the motocross track, a view across to the Solway Plain.  Or putting the bins out on a dark starry night and looking across to the Solway Plain in the distance.  And then, standing on the Ridge one evening on my own, not long after we had moved into the house I am still in, and realising – putting into words in my head – that my soul felt right.  The Ridge, as anybody who has read any of my blogs even irregularly will know, is a special place for me – and for others too I think.  Perhaps the leylines which run through Lanercost also run along the Ridge?

So for me, standing at the top of a hill with my feet on the ground and my head in the sky is one of life’s relaxing, enriching and liberating experiences: and whilst I still love city breaks, probably my friend was right when she said I am a standing-at-the-top-of-a-hill type of a person.

I’ve done that a lot lately.  Mark from across the road,  my friend Penny and I had all entered the Howgills half marathon.  For anyone who doesn’t know, the Howgills are the fuzzy felt hills to the east of the M6 just south of Tebay.  Part of them is in Cumbria even though they lie completely within the Yorkshire Dales National Park.  I had wanted to go up into the Howgills for years, so a half marathon seemed, at the time I entered, a good idea…

We had a training run up Blencathra, a Lake District Fell which I have driven past in various directions many times and which I have seen change character with the seasons and the weather.  We didn’t – couldn’t – run much of the ascent but were rewarded by a glorious view of lakes and fells from the top.  We did run down, my love of descending giving wings to my feet.  I could hardly walk downstairs for two or three days after.

Blencathra April 2017 (4)

The following weekend we had a training run in the Howgills themselves, from Sedbergh.  Whilst many of the Lake District Fells are quite stony at the top (they are, after all, higher than the Howgills on the whole), these were beautiful grass-covered mounds, undulating invitingly for miles, just how they had looked from the motorway.  However although the route we chose did not climb as high as Blencathra, it was certainly as steep if not steeper and we began to wonder how we were going to get on in the race.  We weren’t going to be running uphill much.

As it turned out, there were five miles or so of ascent in the race (at the beginning), followed by a steep but stunning and glorious descent down the side of the highest waterfall in England – Cautley Spout, 175m.  This all happened before the halfway mark, and the race organisers then put in another nasty little and incredibly steep hill only 2-3 miles before the end.  Even the ultra-fit marathon runner who came past me, saying ‘show the hill who’s boss’, didn’t run that bit.  The humorous organisers had put a sign up saying ‘it’s not a hill – it’s just the path is at an angle’ (or similar): although the motivational sign of theirs which really helped me was the one not too far before the end, as I was about to give up and sulk and walk all the way to the finish, which said ‘it’s not a knitting club – now push on!’.  How did they read my mind?!  It got me running again, all the way over the finish line.

And the next challenge?  I’m cycling the next stage of my round Cumbria bike ride – which I really must get on and write up, as well – including up and over Corney Fell.

I also know that I want to live at least halfway up a hill, with a good view from my house: if I can see the sea in the distance that would be great, but if not at least some rolling hills and fells and maybe a lake or a Tarn.  I’ll know when I find the right property.