Category Archives: countryside walking

About that pan-Europan forest smell. Summer ramblings in Kent, England.

Where: Kent, England

When: Saturday, July 1st

What: Sevenoaks – Knole Estate – Ightham Mote – and back again

Who: E, E, N, R, K, R.

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The look of the primeval summer

I understood something a couple of days ago, on last Saturday when we set our course towards the Medieval-Tudor-Victorian Ightham Mote in Kent. I understood that many forests in Europe smell the same.

I also understood that summers are the most melancholy yet the most carefree seasons, and that for the second summer in a row I am not going kayaking or mountain biking as I had mused about. That’s the trouble with musings, however, they never get me anywhere. This makes them different from actual dreams/plans, of course, but it also works a nifty little beacon to any underlying dreams that might go untouched. It is good to know the undercurrents, I think.

Gentle, yet promising

Luckily, last Saturday also brought many lighter realisations. My leg has become stronger. Slowly I’m starting to feel like I can move again. And it is a good, satisfying, smile inducing feeling. Fair enough, running up little hills with R after a double pint of Hells Bells might have helped to get to obtain that positive outlook. But it was not only that.

There was a sweeter realisation at the top of those hills: nothing beats walking into the golden hour with your lover and your friends. (Technically, yes, fine, there are some things that beat this, but that is for the other blog.)

And also, most surprisingly – I understood that although I do not know what will be the next place or the next country where I shall be living in, I shall definitely miss English countryside when there. I shall miss it differently from the Welsh and the Scottish one which fall into a category totally of their own making! But the English countryside. The one that feels small and gentle, yet promising. The one that lacks the feel of the wilderness but that greets you as a friend. The one that can get so ridiculously pretty so fast that it feels like you should stop laughing at the way the sun is breaking through to the undergrowth.

See, the thing is, nature is beautiful everywhere. Yet there’s something about the English countryside that can’t be experienced anywhere else. It keeps a fine balance of alluring you in and then looking the other way for showing you its posh butt cheeks. And yet, you feel welcome. Somehow, it does feel like anold friend you meet again, again, and again.

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What does it really mean – to go walking with friends?

On the gorgeous Saturday of June 10th, I set out to walk the Chess Valley Way with three of my friends (N, E & L). It turned out to be one of the best days in months.

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However, it was not the gorgeousness of the Chilterns AONB nor the perfect walking weather nor even the shallow chalk rivers that allowed us to playfully wade through them that made that day into an acutely special one. After all, technically speaking, the entire last month has not been lacking in the special – I finally obtained my PhD (yup, I’m Doctor Marion now :)) and signed my first book contract (oooh yeaaah!). But none of those specific moments can now be compared with June 10th. Why?

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For starters, had I walked the Chess Valley Way alone, it would have still been a gorgeous day out. Also, had I taken the same friends into a pub – we would have most definitely had a good day out as well. But I would not be writing about this at the moment. So now I’ve been wondering for nearly three weeks… What renders walking with friends so special that it makes your heart sing with joy even 1.5 fortnights later?

 

Where does the walking joy come from?

There is enough research out there (without me having to repeat it) about the benefits of walking in nature. It lifts your mood, boosts creativity – and hence, helps to think outside any box and see new connections -, pimps your immune system, and generally makes you into a better person (fine, fine, meta tests are yet to prove this last one, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark). But this is not all.

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People who undertake longer treks and walks seldom do it out of politeness. This means that all the people you meet during your walks are enjoying what they’re doing. Fully. I think this feel gets mirrored back into your micromuscles and neural networks. Also, lots of people come with dogs – so, even better. You can pet the dogs together with your friends. But even this does not fully explain the essence of that special joy to me. So, to properly figure it out for myself, I’m turning to my oldest friends: lists.

What does it really mean to go walking with friends?

  • It is a perfect combination of alone and together. Walking with friends allows you to fall silent for long periods of time with the knowledge of the bubbling word being right there, at your fingertips. It is the feeling of doing your own things in your room while overhearing all your friends having a party in the kitchen. My semi-silent version of a secret heaven.
  • It is old topics. It is new topics. The change of scenery acts as a catalyst for new ideas and for new connections. Suddenly, you are asking questions about your friend’s thoughts and feelings on topics you had not even worded to yourself yet. This is the time that showers you with ideas for new stories, games, services – you name it!
  • You let new people into your life. Better than a dinner at home or a pub visit – walks with good acquintances have a good chance of turning them into friends later.
  • The shared process of witnessing the new. This experience is richer than a bag of gulab jamuns dipped into clotted cream! This how life itself should unravel, being on the road with the people you love, not fully caring about reaching the destination or getting lost.
  • It pushes you into the present.
  • It feels like a micoradventure.
  • And you see your friends being happy.

 

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The peacock cries of North Yorkshire

I spent the three very last days of April in North Yorkshire, in the land of wild garlic, frolicking ewes and magnificently shaped rocks.

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Brimham Rocks of North Yorkshire.

Little brooks, arched bridges, slate roofs, trees that are still barely accepting the arrival of spring, private fancy bidges and light hearts – these are the keywords from one of the best weekends of the year. So far.

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My heart feels light in Yorkshire. Not because you can go trekking with llamas there and imagine yourself to be standing high on the Andes platoo. Not because it offers you the best little pies in the country, and shop keepers who literally say “Welcome to Yorkshire” in your face. 🙂 It’s actually not all romance and glory. On our circular walk from Pateley Bridge (via Brimham Rocks) we also saw large flags with the word “Brexit” written all over them. Fair enough, the flags were also half-burnt but… Even that could not take the lightness away. I do not know how to be a political person, really. And probably never will.

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North Yorkshire’s lightness seems to come from the wide open spaces, from the tiny brooks leading you to bigger rivers and bigger bridges. Yet, there’s no unnecessary quaintness (like sometimes in the Lake District, for me, sorry!). Spring always arrives much later in here. In fact, it’s almost like you get two springs in one year, just by travelling between Yorkshire and London.

The source of the lightness seems to be a mix of natural beauty (the land is never too flat), a certain sense of time (nothing is too compressed or too eternal or long) and from forgetting to complain. Completely. (A habit I picked up during last 6 months and am now dancing a slow departure walz with.)(Can’t wait for the music to end!)

And then there’s a sense of magic. Somehow, behind every corner, there’s a surprising view you just did not think or imagine to meet you. Everything is clean. So clean that is has an immediate effect on your mind. Something would almost suggest the presence of a monastery, of sorts, but all you can see are country lanes and daffodils. Maybe this it, though? Might as well be. The real reason why the heart becomes so light in here? Parts of North Yorkshire feel like a vast, outdoors monastery where walking is proof of your silent yet lively dedication. To life.

And it sure helps to hear the cry of a close-by yet unseen peacock just when you are crouching down to pick some of that long-awaited-for wild garlic. In your undefined and unnamed temple gardens.

Arctic tundras and canal shores of Venice. Going after unstructured experiences.

A hunt for unstructured experiences is the easiest way to summarise my year of 2016. Yes, I did doctoral research on the topic but the theme was definitely prominent also in other areas of my life (in art, mountaineering training, etc.).

For a while now, I shall probably be posting about different ways to go after that specific type of experience. I will give my best to try to approach it from all angles, large or small, crooked or right angled, and see what makes it longed for, for me and for a lot of people of my time.

This post will focus on two very straightforward ways of achieving a completely fresh spatial experience without throwing yourself off a train without a map. It will focus on ways for designing surprises that work, for yourself.

1. Give someone permission to take you on a trip without telling you the destination.

Lessons learned from the Arctic Norway and Finnish Lapland in September 2016.

Let another person pack your clothes, choose the date and not tell you where you will be going. Destination awareness can be left for the check-in desk, train station or the boat mooring spot.

In September, I had a fabulous chance to experience that type of once again. It is definitely one of my most favourite modes of travelling. Of course, it is romantic to the core, but it also frees you from the philosophical task number 1: to know where you’re going.

And this is where the surprise design kicks in. If all you know is the return date, every following detail starts acting as a structural element of your adventure:

– not knowing when you have to wake up;

– not knowing whether there are plans for the next day;

– not knowing what is in the neighbourhood, near or far;

– not knowing what to take with you;

– not knowing which means of transport to use;

– not having to worry about reaching a place at a certain time;

– not knowing when and where you’ll be eating;

– not knowing which direction you’re going;

– not knowing what to expect.

Unstructuralism achieved!

2. Change the time and scope of your wanderings

Lessons learned on Venice canal shores in November 2016.

It is worth it. If you suddenly find yourself attracted to a city that is an object of admiration to the entire world … don’t go exploring it at the heels of it.

I am talking about these destinations that do not even have an off season, to use holiday parlance.

So, how to find your city inside everyone else’s?

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Night in San Marco, Venice. November 2016.

If possible, arrive very early or very late. This makes your first impression more personal.

Then, schedule your first longer wander outside the tourist hours. Yes, you are on a holiday (I only use the word “holiday” for city trips; outside of it, the concept does not even work), so setting the alarm for 3.30 AM may feel like the first signs of madness, but the sleepiness will lift as soon as you enter the empty maze that every new city is.

Imagination works better when left alone in an empty space. It is also easier to get a feel for a place that is uniquely meaningful only for you.

What else helps? Making a game of spotting a certain elements (like a weathered pattern on a wall) in every new street or square. This way you will end up looking into little side streets and courtyards more often.

Visiting cemeteries always helps. When a city is crowded, her cemeteries are usually less packed (well, depending how you’re counting). Cemeteries let you in on the spirit of the place (no pun intended) without having to fight the crowds.

For extra ideas, it is worth reading Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys or taking a an official city guide book and reversing everything that can be reversed.

Also, on the topic: “The rational flâneur is someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision at every step to revise his schedule, so he can imbibe things based on new information, what Nero was trying to practice in his travels, often guided by his sense of smell. The flâneur is not a prisoner of a plan. Tourism, actual or figurative, is imbued with the teleological illusion; it assumes completeness of vision and gets one locked into a hard-to-revise program, while the flâneur continuously – and, what is crucial, rationally – modifies his targets as he acquires information.” (From Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleeb)

 

 

More lessons from the Lea Valley Way, April style.

 

So, what will actually happen when I finish the Lea Valley Way? Will there be a tiny deluge or will the river itself disappear? (No, no one is suffering from illusions of grandeur in here, no one.)

Lea Valley Way is the 50-mile long-distance walking route following the River Lea from its birth spring in the suburbs of Luton to the Thames near Limehouse.

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It can be pleasantly walked in 4 days or so the Internet says. When I was planning to walk it in one go last summer, there was only one proper description of all stages available online.

I’ve walked the Lea Valle Way:

Lea Valley Walk, Stage 1 / 17.07.2015 / ~ 36 km; read about that stupidly lucky walk here

Lea Valley Walk, Stage 3 / 19.07.2015 / 23 km

Lea Valley Walk, Stage 4 / 26.09.2016/ 7.9k km

– And on 16.04. 2016, S-L, G and I set out to do the Lea Valley Walk, Stage 2 (25.9 km)

Stage 2 of the walk stretches from Hatfield to Broxbourne. By all accounts it should be pleasantly doable in one day, during the warmest sunlight hours. “I can’t believe I’m finally finishing it today!” I told my lover, my friends and my housemates when leaving for that last stretch that Saturday morning.

The first half of the walk was cloudy, but after leaving Hatfield behind and lunching in Hertford, the skies lit up and our step got faster. (Sadly, G actually had to go home, since his foot had managed to seriously convince him it was too exhausting to move.) I also witnessed my goldenest golden hour during this stage of the walk. Everything was going brilliantly.

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Lea Valley Walk, from Hatfield to Broxbourne. Hertfordshire, England, April 2016.

We continued on, following the lovely water. The darkness had long-ago fallen when S-L and I reached Dobb’s Weir – a location separated from the Broxbourne train station by a few kilometers. Finishing the Lea Valley Way was going to happen tonight. Suddenly, all the tiredness was gone from my legs as we started to cross the canal (the river has been directed into a canal around those parts already), I could clearly imagine reaching the station within the next half an hour and… and… and… The road was closed. Blocked (even cordoned off, maybe?; can disappointment also create false memories?) off by a large road works sign. Somewhere not far off in the darkness we saw the orange working lights of the industrial vehicle. But. Not all was lost yet!

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I dashed off to talk to a security man. And yes, all types of roads were closed. However, he directed us to a path in the forest which would take us straight to Broxbourne train station. So we entered the dark forest-like area with the help from the flashlights on our dying phones. We walked to the railway (“When you’ve reached the railway, you’ve gone too far,” the man had also said). Upon then retracing our steps we found the path. Also to be blocked off.

And we decided to call an end to our day.

I asked for local cab numbers but the security van gave us a lift to the train station. (Reminder to self! Always carry chocolate around to give to nice people!)

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*

I still have roughly 3 km to finish, which I will do at some point this year. How else can I ever say that I’ve followed an entire river, right?

Lessons learned:

1) Never underestimate a journey;

2) If destination becomes a goal the journey will lose a bit of its magic;

3) Passing a race track in the dark makes you feel like a character in a James Bond movie;

4) Trips can be undertaken that take you to a beginning of a journey which itself is actually shorter than the trip to get there. (Which part of the journey is the real journey? she asks in an ominous voice.)

My dear and much-esteemed last kilometers of the Lea Valley Way,  I’m coming to find you in 2016.

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So that I wouldn’t forget January

I did get out of town during the first month of this year, I swear! And I did leave the  city in February as well. But two months without a real wander is as long as I can humanly stretch it. If not for any other reason, then to stop myself from staying up until morning to search for all the possible tracks and paths on this island. (And off it.) You know, those if onlys, if onlys

I do prefer to keep my books and magazines more or less intact and *not* to crumple their pages up every time I see a photo of place that looks just too… mmmmmppffff. Origamis of desperation, those.

But I have such good news! March marks the change! And updates on this blog start appearing more regularly again, which is only a good thing!

Until then, here’s proof of the only bit of snow I managed to see in January. Spotted in the Epping Forest District, Essex.IMG_20160117_162658

Wye Valley Walk and the last sun of November

The walk from Chepstow to Llandogo took around 6-7 hours. It was the very beginning to the Wye Valley Walk which runs from Chepstow to Plynlimon. A beautiful 136 miles all together. We did about 22 km of it.

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Just three weeks earlier, Ashdown Forest in East Sussex had welcomed us with the last wave of autumn’s strength. The leaves were still hanging on, the ferns still looked pointy. It had been a darkening but friendly welcome. The time in Monmouthshire was completely different. We had stepped into the silent part of autumn.

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Everything around us had the feeling of having given up. (Not having been conquered; that’s the feeling you get during the third week of winter or so. Difference!) We still managed to walk in sunshine for the better part of the day, however. And no! There’s no magic to us always catching the sun, it’s just the layman’s luck. Or we actually come with a blessing from the Gods of the Woods.

The path we took mostly meandered up and down a valley bank. No grand views but loads of close meetings with gnarly trees. And a passageway through a massive boulder where at least one bat had taken up its residence. This was my first time being inside a boulder together with bats. I’m guessing there were many.

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Wales must be the gnarliest place on Earth, though. I think that part of its mythological charm might actually stem from the gnarls. But we were not in deep Wales, though. Just like the cave entries inside the valley bank that didn’t lead us very far, we kept getting hints of things to come without allowing ourselves to go and fully find out.

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For a little while we walked very close to the river. That part of the valley was covered in the prettiest trees imaginable, every branch and twig so utterly alluring that I nearly left my companions and ran off to see those things from up close. I did, however, suspect a trap and kept following our set course. This willpower is probably the only reason I got back to the the city again.

The border walking kept mentally pulling me away from the valley and more towards “the actual” Wales. I have been to Wales only twice and a certain feeling has lifted its head at both times. It’s the feeling of “if you practice feeling scared, you’ll remember your very first dream”. You know, that type of strange shit that feels too epic to be real.

You don’t need grand cities if you have nature like this. And if you have returned from the actual nature, you might find a small (and locked) village church from the far corner of a tiny cemetery. And if you are lucky, you can peek in through the keyhole and see colours you cannot name. Because you shouldn’t be seeing bright colours in a closed church that is not lit from the inside. And yet to do. And it is twilight outside. But if asked to describe the objects the colours were attached to, I’d really owe you an explanation.

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Borderlands make me restless. They are too rich in light layers of meaning. Every time you want to follow a thought deeper, you’re left with a choice to completely change your course or to give up on the thing that caught your attention. This part of the Wye Valley walk left me hungry. It left me hungry to step deeper over the border, to walk west from where I was, and from there, to go up north again. At the end of the day, it’s the north that wins in most cases.