Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Plea for Independence....

It's been wonderfully warm and dry in the UK recently.  September has been fantastic so far, and we spent a lot of time pondering this.  After much hemming and hawing over some vacation time that was use-it-or-lose it, we found ourselves once again pouring over hiking websites.  It's September and we are getting shorter on daylight, which could be problematic for slow-ass walkers like me.

We thought about finishing up the Coast to Coast.  I would still like to, one day.  The Alps are always good times.  There's a bunch of stuff in Wales we're itching to do.  

In the end, something more exciting than the Yorkshire Moors got our attention.

The West Highland Way is nearly 100 miles.  It stretches from just north of Glasgow to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis, Scotland's highest peak.  It's going to be incredibly challenging, as we are planning on doing this in 7 days, and then (maybe) Ben Nevis on day 8 (I said maybe).  It goes through the beautiful Trossachs National Park along Loch Lomond before climbing into the sky.  I mean, not really, but I've been getting vertigo just looking at the elevation gains and losses for each day.

September is a good time to hike in Scotland if only because the blood-sucking midges are done with.  Those little bastards are terrible.  We encountered them briefly on the Coast to Coast, and they were like little cheerleaders that kept me moving across the fells or else they would suck me dry of blood.  I'll take cold and blustery any day.  Yeah, I say that now.

I'm hoping for decent weather.  If it's bad, that extra day we have will be spent sitting at a pub with a book, as I won't be risking my neck to get across the ominously named "devils staircase".

Unlike the Coast to Coast, I booked this sucker a whole week in advance.  Accommodation was spotty, but I managed to string together a series of hostel, pubs, b&bs and a few "hobbit houses" of byo bedding not-quite-roughing-it camping.  

Another lesson learned:  we will be using a baggage-forwarding service.  You fill out a form letting them know where you are stopping each night, and someone with a van picks ups and drops your bag off every day, as I try to not tear up with joy.  Those packs just slowed us down way too much last time, and we no longer have the luxury of so much daylight.  Plus, they are going to be heavier:  warmer clothing, sleeping bags, and about a million of these suckers:

I feel like now is the time to tackle this hike.  The hundreds of miles we've done since April means that I'm probably more fit now than I ever have been.  I've been going out walking the North Downs Way when I have a spare day here and there, just to keep up and prepare myself (I'll string together that trail in a blog post extravaganza at a later date).  I'm a bit worried about my boots and feet as they really rubbed my heels raw in the Lake District and the interior fabric is almost gone around the heels, but I can't be breaking in new boots at this point.  This is the biggest undertaking to date.

Also, oddly enough, we'll be there during the vote for Scots independence.  It should be interesting.

Another interesting development:

I grow tired of my ass being stung by nettles and thorns every time I need to wee.  I took drastic measures.  This might be a game changer.  

I'll report back on the other side.  Happy Equinox!

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


I've been trying hard to see as much of London and England as possible.  I am just a visitor here after all, and every day there is a new urgency to see anything and everything.  I'm probably not taking a transatlantic flight just to see a marsh in the future.  

One sunny and hot afternoon, I headed out to Essex to Rainham Marshes.  

It's right on the ever-widening Thames in Rainham, about a half hour outside of central London.

Here, the RSBP maintains what used to be a military training site turned bird sanctuary.

There are almost three miles of elevated boardwalk trails that meander around the marsh.  The numerous duck blinds were closed while I was there, but there are several places to get views of the ponds (which are actually craters where the military had bombed).

It was really amazing how diverse this place was.  Despite being close to a highway, a high speed train line, elevated powerlines buzzing overhead, power plants and wind farms all around, it was surprisingly wild once you got in there.

There were tons of wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies.

And just so many birds, many of them exclusive to reed and marsh habitats.  Which, like all bird habitats, is fast disappearing.


Reed Warbler

Oh~  sorry about it so out of focus, but I totally saw a water vole.  They shimmy up the reed stocks and flit around nervously.  The entire time I was walking on the boardwalk over and through the reeds, I heard so many things scurrying around in the canes.  It was almost creepy.

I couldn't get to the bird blinds so I had very limited views of the marsh, but even the glimpse I could see was pretty rich.  Herons and egrets, ducks, coots and moorhens, lapwings, gulls, pipers and stilts.

I walked the 3 mile loop so slowly, I ended up getting locked in.  There were subway-stile turnstiles on the Thamesside edge, so I could get out eventually.  Hilariously, they have a drawbridge at the visitors center that they pull up at night, so you can't just hop the fence to get out.  

No one chased me out, so I enjoyed an empty marsh and watched as all the birds came down in the late afternoon.  The air was perfectly alive with bird songs; ones I had never heard before.  I don't know if anyone would have said this about this site when the military owned it, but it was enchanting.
Sedge Warblers

My one bird of prey sighting: a Marsh Harrier.  It was enormous, and every time it swooped around the marsh, all the other birds cackled in alarm.  Birds of prey are really easy to spot since any bird wanting to stay alive another day makes a racket any time one is anywhere near.

Sedge Warbler

I finally made it back to civilization i.e. the towpath.  It looked like someone had shot these house sparrows dead, but they were just flopping around in the dust.

It's worth a visit out here if you have the time or inclination.  I saw maybe 40 different species of birds, and about 10 of them I had to go home and look up because I had never seen them before.  It's a quick 10 minute walk from the Rainham train station, the visitor center is gorgeous and it has a nice cafe, and I would like to come back and sit around in the blinds overlooking the marsh ponds at some point in the future.  I'm sure the autumn migration here must be spectacular.      

Monday, 15 September 2014

Oh, honey.

I try really hard in my travels to not collect too much crap.  Yeah, I'll send some postcards here and there, and if I happen upon something really special and unique, I'll consider it an investment.  I'm not raiding a kiosk in Times Square any time soon for 3 for $10 "I heart NY" t-shirts or whatever the equivalent is wherever I am.  I take a lot of photos, and I think that's important, as you will have those forever.  Going through those, I will have memories triggered that I would have completely forgotten about otherwise.  Once I've gotten over the cost of the camera and memory cards, it cost me nothing.  They store easily on a cloud service (sorry would-be hackers, I store no nudes on that service) and take up very little physical space.  

Every once in a while, I will try to engage in commerce.  I wanted to buy soap when I went to Bath, because hey!  That makes a great gift.  You went to a town called Bath and got soap!  It supposedly has magical healing properties because everything in Bath does.  When I saw the prices though....they were charging about $10 per bar.  I don't care what is in that soap, it's soap.

Between moving around a lot and just trying to live a smaller life, I just don't want to accumulate.

So why do I have no kitchen counter space right now?

I've been sneakily collecting honey.

A jar here, a jar there.  Oh, it's lovely.

A heady, exotic tropical Costa Rican honey.  The larger bottles were being sold in recycled plastic soda bottles, but I didn't need a liter.

Some wildflower honey from France that is being scraped to the bottom right now.  They take their honey and bees seriously in France, and every market I went to had beekeepers selling their goods.  I was especially a fan of lavender honey.  It had a pleasant soapiness to it that paired well with raspberries.

Some Spanish rosemary honey.  This is herbal and a little bitter and amazingly good.  I've never found rosemary honey anyplace else but Spanish origin.  If you find some, grab it.  I'm on a vegetarian kick right now, but I will make a breakfast dish of chorizo and sunnside eggs with some of this drizzled on top and it's so good you'll want to roll in it.

Some dark wildflower honey from Piedmont.

Some Scottish heather honey.  It's beautiful and light and dry floral, and it has a very sweet, waxy scent to it..

Oh, and there's a type of honey they produce in remote corners of Turkey from bees feasting on rhododendron nectar.  It's slightly toxic to humans, and with the right dosage, you'll have a nice trip.  Too much, you'll land yourself at the local heath clinic. I didn't find it while I was there, but apparently it can be had for a price.  

Now that my travels consist of getting to point A to point B on foot, I'm hesitant to collect any more.  Carrying jars of honey in my backpack while going up mountains....nope.  Not gonna do it.  It's got to be really spectacular honey for me to make that kind of commitment.

I have yet to buy some proper English honey.  I want to, but I feel a little honey-saturated right now.  They say a good way to build an immunity to local allergens is to ingest a little raw honey every day, as it is filled with pollen.  I don't know if it really helps sufferers or not, but the logic sounds solid and oh, a chance to eat more honey.  They have hives in Windsor Great Park, and I tried some honey from a London hive collective.  Sure, it's a bit more expensive than the stuff labeled "honey" in the grocery shops, but you are supporting local keepers of bees, and that's important.  

Sunday, 14 September 2014

FO: Habitat hat

Another day, another hat.

This one will be gifted to the aforementioned friend.  He gets a cable hat, but not the orange one.  That one is mine.  He gets this one instead:

It's the Habitat beanie, another elegantly cabled and wearable Brooklyn Tweed pattern.  I think this one is a bit more masculine looking and better suited for a guy anyway.  Not that I want to apply gender stereotypes to knitwear and colors.  This is actually 100% unisex.

Another skein of Juno Fibre Arts gone.  In a panic, I sent an email to the dyer as I can't find any more of the BFL on her website or etsy shop.  This is my new favorite yarn.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

FO: Bray cap

I started out with good intentions.  Really, I did.

All of the yarn that I bought at Unwind Brighton was all meant to be knitted up and gifted to friends and family.  I got a lot of guy-colors and neutrals because of it.

I started this hat thinking it would be a gift for a guy friend of ours.  I had made his wife a pair of socks after she did all of the cleaning up after Thanksgiving dinner but haven't made him a thing despite his freshly-shorn head.

I cast on.  I started knitting.

I fell in love.

It's mine now.

Besides, it is far too slouchy for a guy.  Right?  Right?

I try not to be a selfish knitter.  I mean, I have plenty of hats.  I don't need another one.  And yet...there was something about this.  The cables, the lace, the slouch, the soft silky yarn.  I'm not an orange person at all, but suddenly this speaks to me.

The yarn is Juno Fibre Arts Buffy BFL in "Campfire".  I love it.  I want more.  For myself, for everyone I know.  The world needs more things knitted from this yarn.

The pattern is Bray Cap by Jared Flood.  It's not complicated at all, but it is something I had to sit down and concentrate on.  I still love almost all the Brooklyn Tweed patterns, but he designs so damn many I can't keep up.

Friday, 12 September 2014

South Downs day 6: We have ourselves a swim to Amberley

Oh, the rain!  The papers would later call it "WETTEST BANK HOLIDAY EVER!".  Who am I to argue?

Despite the fact we did a pretty good clip the day before and we had been in bed and asleep by 9:30, we woke refreshed and ready to go.  The inn we stayed- The MoonLight Cottage- gets my raves forever as the woman who runs it is actually a good cook.  Not only was the cake excellent, but breakfast was spot-on, and she had lovely touches like plain, unsweetened yogurt and good organic ingredients.  The packed lunch was probably the best we've had on the trail as well.  

It made the morning all the more sweeter.     

We were carrying our light packs, which we don't have rain covers for, so we carefully packed up all of our stuff in big heavy-duty ziplock bags.  Including my camera.  I was phone-reliant for the day.

We headed back up the now slippery slope.  We passed a farm near the trail side.  A huge dog came running out- it had a face like a German Sheppard, but it was much bigger and had shaggy black fur.  It didn't bark or growl, but it came running at us very alert looking.  At the last minute, he stopped, and put his giant head on my leg and looked up with big brown eyes.  Thanks for making my wet pants wetter, you stupid sweet dog.

It wasn't so bad.  At first, anyway.  It rained, it drizzled.  We had crap visibility.  It's days like this where you get concerned about losing the trail.  We had very little view, of anything, making it really easy to get disoriented.  I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.

It was beautiful.  It was still.  There was no one out at all.  It was other-worldly and calm and misty and magical.

Something we hadn't seen on the trail before:

Sunflowers!  A huge field of them.

This one made me laugh- it was the only one out of the whole bunch that was facing the wrong way, and it looked beat up because of it.  This is why I walk from West to East here.  You want the rain and wind at your back whenever possible!

We stopped really briefly to eat our sandwiches while standing under a big pine tree, which was about the driest place we could imagine finding.

The low visibility made you look extra hard at anything that you could see, and everything was eerie and ominous and beautiful.

At this point, we were up on the ridge with the rain pelting us ferociously.   Despite our waterproof jackets and trousers and boots, we were soon soaked to the skin.  I figured it was like a wetsuit, and my body heat was keeping a nice layer of water warmed up.  I don't think I've been out when it is raining so hard that your hooded rainproof jacket became useless- the wind was just blowing too hard for anything to be watertight.  As long as I didn't stop, I felt okay, but the moment I paused, I would start feeling really unpleasant.  I didn't mind so much, except my socks wicked up enough water to soak my feet, and I was squishing water out of my boots with every slippery step.

Rather hilariously, my shirt fell apart completely.  It was one of those merino layers that I love to wear on the trail so much.  I went to tug on the hemline and was surprised to find I had managed to tear a huge chunk off the back of my shirt.  Further poking and prodding revealed the whole shirt was easily persuaded to transform into tatters, and it was staying on only by adhering to my wet skin.  Something about the wet and the friction and the wool meant I was walking in nothing but my sports bra and a few mangy tatters of what used to be my shirt.  I...I had just never had that happen before.  


We went through a huge farm that was practicing lots of sustainability and organic methods, which seemed really cool.  We could barely stop to read all the signs they had posted at the gates, the water was just pelting us too hard.

We did encounter one other walker coming towards us.  We barely saw each other until we were almost on top of him.  "WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?" he yelled our way.  "BECAUSE IT IS FUN!" I yelled back.

And it was.

The only thing I remember seeing the rest of the day was a sign post at the old Roman Road we crossed.

This might have been the fastest we ever walked 13 miles before.  Despite that the trail was becoming a slippery white-chalk mess, we booked it and arrived at the pub less than 6 hours from when we set out.  With nothing to stop and admire, we made really good time.

We got to the pub in Amberley.  We were in desperate need of a change of clothes and a pint, I hesitated at the door.  I was beyond soaking, and I knew that every step I took would leave a huge pool of water on the floor.  I went for it anyway, and locked myself in the bathroom and dried up and put on clean clothes.  I ended up having to mop up the bathroom floor because I flooded it while wringing out my clothes in the sink.  Well, except for the shirt.  That just went into the bin once I figured out how to scrape every last bit of it off.

Dry clothes never felt so good.  The pub was really warm and friendly, and we could peer out the back and see the board at the train station, so I'm going to say it was convenient as well.  We got some drinks and some nibbles and relaxed by the late-August fireplace.

Oh, and the only real damage?  The phone that went for a swim in the Lake District a few weeks back and managed to survive.  A waterproof pocket ended up being not-so-waterproof, and the poor phone drowned for good this time.

Even after all that, we felt good.  It had been uncomfortable being so wet for so long, but we had walked nearly 30 miles over two days and we still felt fresh and energetic.  However, we wouldn't turn down a chance to sit down by the fire.  We're not that nutty.

I'm actually kind of sad that we only have two more days of walking on this trail.