Of months and cycles

Has it really been a month since I got back from the Alps? My good intentions to write a full trip report got quickly lost in an August full of upheaval and change, but as the dust settles into the beginning of September (one of my favourite months) I am beginning to make the time to think about those awe-inspiring two weeks in Switzerland and smile wistfully at the memories I have of crossing those eleven mighty mountain passes. Would you believe I haven’t even looked through my photos yet, let alone done the slide-show for nearest and dearest?

I can’t just blame time though; it’s also inclination. These days I am getting more and more lackadaisical with writing up my trips. In part this is because I find it difficult to convey my true feelings about such adventures – the words just seem to melt from the page as I write, and every sentence put down feels like I’m disappointing the subject. And this from a writer! You see, a lot of people write about their trips and many people do it very well, but for me time spent outside (particularly that spent alone) is usually something akin to a spiritual experience and how on earth do you articulate that without reducing it to the banal? How do you do that without sounding too kooky? Do you care about the logistics of my trip – how I booked the huts and how I chose my food? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Truthfully, I don’t care much about writing about it though and my e-door is always open anyway to anyone who wants to ask me for the logistical details so that you can recreate your own trips. But does that make for the words I am excited to write and which I’m excited for you to read? I’m not convinced.

If I’m honest – and I do like to be honest - I would rather take the word-space to tell you about the transcendent experience of walking alone all day every day in the some of the finest mountains on earth for two weeks. I would like to give you some insight into the journal I kept religiously along the way. The two books that I filled with creative ideas and philosophical musings. Perhaps some snippets of poems that came to me half formed and which are yet to be worked on.  I’d like to tell you what I think about when I run, and why it might matter. I’d like to share how I feel when I launch my kayak into the sea and feel awash with fear and excitement. This is the stuff that fills my heart with joy; my outdoors. And it’s this type of relationship with the outdoors that I am interested in working with, with you.

So, I’m going to talk about these things more, because there’s no better time than now on the cusp of so much exciting change. I’m not going to worry about describing routes unless it’s pertinent to the bigger point, I’m only going to tell you about the things that made a real difference – the most comfortable pack I’ve even worn in my life, or the campsite that changed my perspective of wild - and I’m not going to fret about the lag time between trips and posts. Instead, I’m going to write about it all when the words are ready to be written because I’m a firm believer in the right time, of cycles, and that everything has a rhythm of its own. That things worth saying are timeless.

I would like to learn how to write my way again in the long-form; taking my ideas beyond the paragraph-space of Instagram and bringing it here more. I need to harness that deep vitality I feel in my head when I go outdoors (be it to walk, cycle, run, climb or kayak) in a way that is engaging and relevant to someone other than me. It’ll take time to get right no doubt, but I have time. We all have time to get the important things right.  

So let’s see about this. Let’s try it out. 

Lowe Alpine Alps

Volunteering: some lessons I've learnt along the way

Volunteering, for me, is an interesting and complex thing. It’s something I started doing when I was 15 and have always done since, but it raises lots of issues and questions and sometimes leaves me disillusioned and tired. But it’s also something I find hugely rewarding when I go about it the right way. I worked out a long time ago that the work I love to do is generally worthwhile socially but poorly-paid if at all, and as such I try and do what I can whilst off-setting the cost through paid work. A reality that just is.  This means that my volunteering is a compromise time-wise, and means that I seek projects that don’t need a huge commitment per week, but that require longer term commitment. I can’t offer full time hours, but I can offer a year (or three) of me in bits. 

Working with a group of Nurses from Southmead Hospital to build and open a Hospital in rural India. 

Working with a group of Nurses from Southmead Hospital to build and open a Hospital in rural India. 

This summer I’ll be starting some work with Serpentine Community Farm, which I found out about through my course tutor when inquiring about potential voluntary opportunities for someone like me with an interest in outdoor therapy. She had spent the last 18 months helping to strip back and wholly redesign a local farm space in Buxton, Derbyshire, and was desperate for volunteers to help with the horticulture, but also to help grow the project as means for local community engagement and support for local people with mental, physical and/or learning disabilities, or simply for people to come and learn new vocational skills who might lack confidence or opportunities elsewhere. 

When I was deciding whether and how I could be of value to Serpentine, I realised that I was drawing on several years of lessons learnt in such matters. So, I thought I would share the distillation of those on the blog today as they could be useful to other people thinking about starting some voluntary work for the first time. 

Serpentine Community Farm, Buxton Derbyshire. 

Serpentine Community Farm, Buxton Derbyshire. 

1)    Don’t expect it to be a place where everyone is angelic, friendly and selfless
This was a tough lesson I learnt years ago. At the end of the day charitable organisations are made up of the same people as businesses. Granted, there might be a higher percentage of caring, selfless people in the third sector, but all people are Human and this means that at some stage you will feel let down by people who you thought would behave better. It has happened to me at Oxfam, Age UK and Samaritans. All great organisations doing great work, but put a whole bunch of people together in an organisation and there will always be those who want to get to the top, or who want to control the way things are done, or want to set up an inner-sanctum of favourite people that at some stage you will feel left out of. Once you’ve accepted this truism of people, your expectations will be a lot less freighted with unrealistic hope and over time you will last for longer in the organisation of your choice. 

2)    Get as close to the community as possible
This is an issue of two halves really. Firstly, you will gain a lot experience, satisfaction and sense of usefulness the closer you are in a relationship with the people you wish to work with (and working with is important. You are no one’s saviour). The further away you are from the people who count, buried in logistics and politics, the harder it is, in my experience, to maintain a love for the work. Remember – you’re doing this for free. But whether you’re paid or not the people you’re working with will likely want your commitment, so if you do something and then immediately get frustrated, bored and angry then you’ll leave and the training investment in you will be a waste to organisations or communities that can least afford it. So related to this is do your homework before committing. Do you have a skills match? Does the commitment suit what you can manage? Secondly, volunteering brings value when you build relationships with people and help to set up sustainable systems. Not when you pay someone else lots of money to take you somewhere exotic, get some great photos with ‘the poor and needy’ and then leave again. I’m a big believer in local community work for this reason. It’s not as sexy and glamorous, but you have the chance to build stronger links overtime with a better understanding of what’s needed on your doorstep. Bringing value isn’t about flying into a place and reaffirming stereotypes about the needy developing world, and the white saviours from the west. It’s about working with people in communities to do it for themselves. Whether that’s helping build infrastructure or helping individuals learn to cope with mental illness. Of course, I'm talking specifically here about working with people for people, but the same will be true of environmental/animal work I'm sure. 

3)    The most needed projects aren’t necessarily the sexiest
The inescapable fact is that some of the most important jobs in society are not sexy. Think of the night shift workers in a care home for the elderly. The awesome folk who empty your bins and sort your waste. The nurses working a late in A&E on a Friday night clearing up sick when everyone else is out partying or having a quiet night in. Often the most disadvantaged people who really need advocacy and support are marginalised by society or generally forgotten in the scrum. This might be a far cry from English teaching, school building or turtle counting but it is very necessary work. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to get some experience working in Africa but several degrees later I am still waiting for an opportunity where I can bring real value, not just to sign up for an ‘experience’ that will benefit me more than it will the people I want to work with. In reality, there is so much to be done in the nooks and crannies of our own communities and some of it might lack the wow-power of international aid work, but it is still vital and necessary and worth looking in to. That’s not to say there isn’t wonderful work to be done abroad – as I say, I’m still on the lookout for what I can do within my current constraints – but international work in beautiful places is not the only work to be done. The uncomfortable truth is that sometimes your money, or your help with marketing and awareness raising at home is more important than your presence on the ground in that beautiful place you saw on social media. What are your unique skills? Where do they bring value the most even if they’re not so sexy? You can bet they’ll be important somewhere! Then one day when sexiness and skills match you're on to a winner ;-)

4)    It’s important to rest. 
Some roles are demanding both physically and mentally. After 2.5 years on the phones, in prisons and running half marathons with The Samaritans I was on my knees emotionally. I went in hard several days a week on top of my full time day job and growing small business, and I burnt out. I got to the point where I couldn’t take another phone call listening to someone else’s despair. It was too hard. I worried about them too much. I got too furious with the prank sex calls. So I took a break, a really long break and I allowed myself the time to reconfigure before taking my next steps. It’s important that you try and avoid care-fatigue and remember that it’s much easier to look out for others when you are healthy yourself. Self-care is ok! Frankly, you can get carried away trying to do amazing things and there comes a point where you have to ask yourself who you’re doing it for – you or them. I’m not a believer in altruism and know that voluntary work will always tick a ‘makes me happy’ box, but on balance I think it should probably be a greater service to those you’re working with, and to be effective you do need to maintain your own well-being along the way. 

A phone not a calculator. Great North Run. 

A phone not a calculator. Great North Run. 

Clearly, there is so much more to say on this topic - I could talk about it for hours - but this is just a few thoughts of mine that might help you make some choices in the future if you don't know where to start looking for opportunities that you can get involved in. 

Have you volunteered in the past? What lessons did you learn? I'd love to hear about your own experiences on here or Instagram!

Travelling alone, alone.

Over the last few weeks I have started to put some logistics to paper for a summer adventure that I will be spending alone. A trip that I will deliberately take alone because I want to, despite being in a relationship, despite having friends, despite enjoying company like other normal human beings. 

And when I say alone, I mean as alone as possible. Read any ‘Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Travel Alone’ guides on the internet and within the top 5 is usually the benefit of making ‘crazy, interesting friends’ on the road that you wouldn’t otherwise meet. And yet my call to the road is for the very opposite reason. I am lucky enough to know lots of people who are interesting and intelligent, smart and funny, well travelled… but at least once a year I like to be with nobody by myself. That's not to say I don't meet wonderful people in passing (I don't go out of my way to avoid people on the street, or in restaurants etc) but for these short bursts of time in my life I like to have time alone with my own voice in my own head. 

Yes, I’m the classic introvert. And this often surprises people because I like to work with people and know that, for me, a fulfilling life is one in service to others. But I take my rest by myself and recharge by myself. When I have troubles I go to myself and when I need advice I look inwardly first. When I feel a need to grow, I know it often has to be done alone so that I can find the answers in myself. Not to go alone and meet others in a busy hostel. Not to go alone for a few days and then hook up with a group. Nope, alone. Alone, alone. I travel alone not for the travel itself but to open my eyes to the world, and see by myself, for myself how it looks. 

I started travelling by myself several years ago at around the time I met my now husband. I suppose you could say that being together started a trade of confidences, and the confidence he gave me was to be good in my own skin. To not be afraid to hit the path alone sometimes. A curious gift from someone who doesn't travel alone through choice. Sure, it was always in me by instinct, but in the past I may have worried about leaving someone behind. I may have worried that they’d forget me. I may have worried that I would flounder.

And yet I never have. Travelling solo has always been the most developmental and enriching of experiences that leave me feeling confident in my ability to cope with what life throws at us, and refreshed to the bone marrow. A way of being that, I admit, I have grown rather addicted to over the years. I don’t go away a lot on my own (as time off it limited and I want to share it with my husband too) but a couple of times a year I try and fit in a longer trip and a shorter trip by myself where I intend to wholly be by myself and to remember, in all it's trial and wonder, what that feels like. 

Lone bird, Iceland. 

Lone bird, Iceland. 

In recent years, lone travel has taken me on a three-week Italian and Sicilian odyssey, a two-week roadtrip around and across Iceland, an emotionally challenging adventure to Russia, a self-designed wildlife exploration of Estonia and many more besides in the UK. This year I am hoping to cross the Alps, alone. 

Solo travel isn’t without its challenges of course, but I have learnt that it is the difficulties you face that grow you the most; a growth that echoes into your future when you find yourself in need of confidence. There were times in Italy, a year after my dad died, that I was desperately lonely. In Russia I had food poisoning and in Estonia the spectacular Great Crane Migration that I had travelled to witness, had unexpectedly been and gone two days before my plane touched down (that's nature for you!). Language has been a barrier in places and accommodation has been more expensive owing to my preference for quiet places away from other people. I also have hardly any photos of myself in these wonderful places to look back on. But, some of my best memories come from thinking back to how I was in my finest moments travelling alone. 

I see myself confidently pounding the streets of St Petersburg on my arrival despite all of the angry-looking winter faces that wouldn’t help me find my lodgings. I smile when I recollect the Icelandic mountain road I had to reverse down in the snow because I had foolishly taken my under-powered, two-wheel drive car up a pass that was closed but had not seen the wind-toppled sign. I also breathe a happy sigh when I think of the speed at which I covered giant Pompeii and Herculaneum without anyone else to slow me down, and I reminisce fondly on the night I spent alone in a bear hide in the middle of Estonian nowhere, jumping and tearing-up every time I heard an animal scratch at the (padlocked) door. 

From solo travel has sprung more ideas than I could ever enact. I have dreamed up business ideas both excellent and fanciful. I have built a back catalog of travel poetry. I go to refill the creative well, and always find myself gloriously full (if not tired, sunburnt/windburnt and with at least some of my valuable property missing).  

Travelling alone is like a secret that is all mine. I share my memories with myself after a hard day of work, or when someone says something cruel, or when I feel that I’m not good enough for this or that. Watching moon rise from the top of a mountain alone - be in at home or abroad - is better than any self-help book I’ve ever read, and it helps me return to the world better able to be a good person for me and those around me who I cherish.  

To the Sun. A mixed media edit of my own photo from my solo travels in Estonia. 

To the Sun. A mixed media edit of my own photo from my solo travels in Estonia. 

Are you a solo traveller? Perhaps you'd like to give it a go but you're not sure? I'd love to hear your thoughts here or on @instagram :)

Canopy & Stars Collective // Knepp Wildland Safari

This week I got to spend 2 days in Sussex at Knepp Wildland Safaris courtesy of Canopy and Stars as a new member of their outdoor collective. 

My camping trips tend to be a lot quieter, a lot rougher and a lot higher...camping proper with none of the glamp! But I'm certainly no stranger to C&S hideaways, having opted to stay in several of their places since 2011, when what I really  fancy is the outdoors with a bit of luxury. Certainly, having a few creature comforts is something I can't resist when I have lots of thinking work to do, and I find that my stays with C&S have always been inspiring because of that. So I was thrilled to start working with them this week !

Having previously stayed in a yurt and a boatshed, I asked if i could be planted in a shepherd's hut for my stay, and I was happy to discover on my arrival that I was to be installed in the Longhorn Hut (after the cattle roaming on site), complete with log stove, comfy double bed and lots of lamps, cushions and rugs to make the whole thing impossible to leave. 

But as with all my outdoor wanderings (shack, tent or cabin) the real highlight for me is what's going on outside and I was thrilled to learn that Knepp Wildland is a major low-land rewilding project here in the UK, where thousands of hectares are returning to the wild under the leaves and feet of many now-very-rare flora and fauna. Along with red, roe and fallow deer roaming amongst the abundant Sallow willow, they've also brought back Longhorn Cattle and Tamworth pigs as proxies for auroch and wildboar. They've reintroduced meanders back into the river system, watched water violet flourish and now boast the UK's most significant populations of the extremely rare Turtle Dove, Purple Emperor Butterfly (their logo!) and Nightingales. 

A safari round the southern end of the site (with their lovely in-house ecologist Penny) takes you to the nearest you'll get to the African Savannah in the UK, and from tree platforms you can watch water birds amongst the reeds and red kites over head. 

Back on site, the camping options range from huts through yurts to a giant tipi with an equally giant tree bed and there are many hot (and quirky) outdoor showers, toilet stops and open air, fairy-lit, antler-covered cooking areas. The food on site is all locally sourced and if you're that way inclined you can eat venison and tamworth pig from the estate itself. The staff are interested and inspiring through their commitment to the project and it's all just a bit of a dream really!

I feel very lucky to have seen Knepp and have a whole raft of ideas forming on how the site could be used for mindful outdoor therapeutic retreats, but that's a whole story for another day. In the meantime, get yourself to Knepp if you're interested in this new world of rewilding 'conservation' - it won't disappoint! You can book your stay through C&S here!