What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!
The start of a new year can be a useful time to take stock of life. January can be a month that some find too quiet but it has its uses as I am finding out for myself. A current career break means that I have added occasion to think over what I would like to do for a living. After five years of family bereavements followed by responsibilities added through inheritance, there is plenty of reason for this. What had not been obvious to me is that my last job was not a match and the experience left its mark, one that needs to be overcome.
Throughout all of this, I am not forgetting that I am an explorer at heart. There has been time to catch up on reading and I now have my fill of travel writing so I will not be lured into book purchases as easily as before. More discernment could be the way of things for me and that cannot be so bad when finances need to be kept in check during times like this hiatus from work.
Also, I have been travelling around England and Wales collecting ideas for walking trips like Roseberry Topping and Pumlumon Fawr. Surveying the countryside about the latter brought me the added benefit of a short if muddy stroll around Llangurig. Visiting nearby Rhayader is another thought and a short stay in Aberystwyth could facilitate more than initially had come to mind. Other parts of the Welsh River Wye are ripe for exploring too and the hills of the Black Mountain in the western side of the Brecon Beacons could be another tempting idea.
City visits to Edinburgh and Cardiff have come to pass. In the middle of the latter, the banks of the River Taff offered an oasis of calm with Llandaff Cathedral feeling as if it is in a country rather than where it is. Bute Park was another delight that makes me wonder why it took so long for me to make an independent visit to the place and there is Cardiff Castle if I wanted to include that as part of a return visit. There is plenty there for cyclists too and I am not surprised that bicycle hire is available.
Those city wanderings remind me that there have been times during the last few years when energy for more strenuous outings has not been as readily available. Edinburgh has featured quite a few times and there are regular haunts nearer my home in Macclesfield. Knutsford’s Tatton Park, Disley’s Lyme Park together with Macclesfield’s Tegg’s Nose Country Park and Dane’s Moss Nature Reserve all have been places where quick visits offered respite from life’s tumult when enthusiasm for longer trips was not to be found. The same could be said for more urban spots like Buxton, Chester, Sheffield and even Manchester. Anywhere where a coffee can be enjoyed away home has had its uses.
Strolls on my own doorstep like circuits taking in Prestbury all had their uses when my head needed clearing, like on Christmas Eve during my first ever Christmas spent in Macclesfield. That was a stormy affair, as much in my mind as it was out of doors. When a brighter interlude offered, it did not need much persuasion for me to head out on a longer round that linked Tegg’s Nose, the Saddle of Kerridge and the White Nancy. It became just the breather that I needed at the time.
The last few months have been as much about exorcising hurtful memories as anything else. That included the past Christmas and New Year period when it felt more normal than others. Trips to Tatton Park, Manchester and Lincoln all broke up the flow and I also got learning that camping stoves should be used out of doors too, a misadventure that I have no relish for repeating.
Getting past that was like everything else in life in recent times. 2017 became a year when I lightened some of life’s load so I need to think ahead now. Getting an enjoyable and fulfilling work life is one thing and my zest for exploring countryside continues. Overseas excursions could restart yet since I am making my way through Kev Reynolds’ Walking in the Alps at the moment and there is his The Swiss Alps, The Pyrenees and Trekking in the Alps after that. That lot should keep me going for a while yet and I am not overlook what hill country is nearer to hand either.
There are some of us who normally do not crave warmer temperatures and I consider myself among those. My parents were much the same as is my brother and others who I know. With us, anything much above 20° C hardly is desired and triggers a kind of hibernation during heatwaves.
In my case, it also has meant that I often had headed north for summer getaways. Scotland has featured a lot, as much for its scenic delights as for the ability to leave my normal way of life after me for a while. In the last two years, it has become more obvious with my rejection of continental summer temperatures for the relative cool of Iceland and Norway. That walking is much of what I do for relaxation means that scorching temperatures are not so compatible anyway.
For alpine wanderings, I chose what I saw as shoulder seasons such as spring for Austria and autumn for Switzerland. Still, I still met up with temperatures in the mid to high twenties around Innsbruck yet I found, that by going higher, it was easy to escape these though cable car travel saves your sweating on the way uphill. It was a reminder that higher level alpine walking is a way of escaping heat as much as would going to the coast in more maritime localities.
In contrast, many heat lovers head south during the winter and there always is the southern hemisphere where they have their summer. In between, the milder winters of southern Europe suffices for those of us fancying a warmer escape from frosty weather that is not overly hot. In fact, such is the heat that some of those places get in summer that walking becomes a autumn, winter and springtime activity.
You might be tempted to think that applies to places like the Canary Islands, Madeira or the Azores but much of Spain, Italy, Croatia and Greece is likewise. It may come as a surprise to some but places normally associated with sun, sand and sea have their delightful stretches of nearby hill country too. That makes them possibilities for for warmer winter walking getaways. Mallorca and Corsica may have fleshpot reputations but going elsewhere on those islands brings you to dramatic craggy terrain.
The same applies to the south of Portugal, Spain and Italy. There are places in the hills not far from the Algarve, the Costa Blanco and the Costa del Sol have a wilder and less developed feel. Winter is low season too so whatever hotels are open may give you better deals depending on when you go. It may feel odd to base yourself somewhere geared up for more sedentary or hedonistic pursuits when you are after more wholesome country walking but it can be made to work.
Coming a little further north, I even considered Catalonia, Tuscany and Umbria too as I surveyed places that I otherwise would not consider. Given the reputations of some and my need for restorative quieter breaks, that may not be such a surprise. With a different time of year, different needs can be fulfilled and year round popularity makes for simpler travel arrangements even in the off season too.
After a break needed to care for their own older relatives, my parents started to go exploring Ireland again. Early memories of this involved evening drives after the cows had been milked. Places like Springfield Castle, Cahermoyle House and the last resting place of William Smith O’Brien still reside in my memory. Somehow, I also seem to recall that the evenings were clouded and dull when we made these excursions, but my father retained an interest in history for much of his life and a few of these outings stemmed from that.
That is not to say that places were not frequented for their scenic worth. After all, my mother enjoyed flowers and shrubs with many a pot plant about the house while shrubs and trees made mowing the lawn all the more interesting. Trees were favoured by my father, so places like Foynes Wood, Curraghchase Forest Park and Doneraile Park also saw visits and the Ballyhoura Mountains were not ignored either, especially given my mother went on Sunday drives around there with her own mother. Visiting gardens open to the public was more my mother’s interest and she found ones like Annesgrove Gardens near Castletownroche in North Cork or Derreen Gardens near Lauragh in Kerry through the pages of the Cork Examiner (now the Irish Examiner). Rhododendron flowering seasons nearly always saw excursions to the Vee and Mount Melleray in the Knockmealdown Mountains between Clogheen in County Tipperary and Cappoquin in County Waterford.
Continuing the scenic theme, my parents also appreciated mountain and coastal scenery. My mother especially enjoyed the latter and it was the freshness of the Atlantic sea air that especially drew her. There were so many visits to Ballybunion in County Kerry that the place no longer appealed to me and might have inoculated me against seaside resorts for life! Other favoured seaside destinations included Beale, Banna and Ballyheigue on the same stretch of coastline as well as the likes of Kilkee, Lahinch and Spanish Point in County Clare.
Thinking back on it, it sounds that my parents enjoyed much of what is branded now as the Wild Atlantic Way. In fact, I reckon that there was not much of Ireland’s western seaboard that they had not savoured. Donegal stands out in my mind, as well as Sligo and maybe north Mayo too. Definitely, their travels have West Cork, Kerry and Clare well covered and there were a few days spent around Connemara too, nearly twenty years ago. Car touring was their way rather than country walking though, and they thought of their excursions as going for drives and these often were leisurely too, the often narrow roads that were travelled saw to that. Doring Kindersley’s Back Roads Ireland (from their Eyewitness Travel series) would echo what my parents enjoyed doing.
On some of these, they would bring us along and there would be many miles covered between the two milking times in the day. One was around 180 miles and took us all around the Beara Peninsula with a scary moment when it looked as if there was no road and that all that was ahead was the sea. Even though it was a sunny summer day, the sight gave pause for thought until we saw the road go around to the left and lose height as it did so. Going slow around there certainly paid its dividends. Another memory from such an escapade was dropping down into the Black Valley and the Gap of Dunloe on a gravel track in an ordinary family saloon, a four-door Nissan Sunny. The places that they took their cars would surprise you and there was a story about the way into a waterfall on of their multi-day trips away; the road was well rough and my father proceeded without due regard to the underside of the car and got away with it. It may have been Glen Inchaquin near Kenmare but I cannot be more definite than that.
The east coast of Ireland did not get overlooked either, for they honeymooned around Bray in County Wicklow. Thirty years later, they reprised that trip and went to Glendalough and other spots too. The full details escape me at this stage, but their love of scenery certainly excluded very few parts of Ireland. Another trip away took them down to Ireland’s south-eastern corner, though it was not as sunny as its reputation suggests when they were there. There was one story about an experience in a guest house when trying to open a window for fresh air at my mother’s insistence resulted in the thing falling out on my father. It was dodgy anyway and hit no one as they discovered the next morning. Many a B&B say was secured at the end of a day’s touring and they were fortunate that accommodation providers at any fully booked establishments rang around to sort them out for that night. That is something on which I never would attempt myself now and I did take such a spur of the moment approach with hostels on my first visit to the Isle of Skye. It makes me shudder a little even now.
All of these visits to scenic areas rubbed off on me and actually inspired me to visit the Scottish Highlands in the first place. Even so, I followed a very different approach with more cycling and walking with hardly any motorised touring at all. Nevertheless, all that exploring of Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man never would have happened if visits to Kerry and West Cork with my parents had not stirred up something in me and my mother encouraged it in her own small way by asking if I had gone anywhere during a preceding weekend. Without my various excursions, there would be anything for this blog or even for this website and that is one of the priceless things that they have left me. My curiosity for seeing new places or new sides to old haunts still remains with me. There are parts of Ireland that they visited where I have yet to go and there is armchair wandering beyond the shores of Britain and Ireland too, with the Faroe Islands and the Alps arousing enough interest for me to survey guidebooks because I realise how little I know of such places. Whether I actually get to these places is another matter, but my current hunting grounds have much to delight me so I have no plan to desert those either. The two people who inspired all this may be with us no longer, yet their wanderlust has not gone with them. It is difficult to see them wanting to be very much different.
As anyone with elderly parents should know, life can be a roller coaster ride when their health declines. It certainly has felt that way over the last few years for my family and I. However, escaping out into the countryside has helped in its own way when dealing with life’s rougher moments. Getting through December 2012 certainly called for those head clearing escapes, be they into Tatton Park near Knutsford in Cheshire or along Irish country lanes. Both of my parents were frail then with my mother having been shook up by a hospital visit and my father’s strength in free fall since the summer. By Christmas, he really needed to be in a nursing home but mentioning the subject only resulted in angry exchanges. It took a brush with death due to a kidney infection for the matter to be forced and the issue to get resolved as it needed to be. He still was not intent on staying where he needed to be, and it was a nice place too, so no one could relax and a walk along the Macclesfield Canal between Congleton and Macclesfield as well as a shorter stroll around Buxton were well needed.
What really changed everything was my mother’s passing away not so long before what would have been her eighty first birthday and the loss was a raw one that not only resulted in next to daily evening walks by the River Bollin but also had me venturing further afield is search of a spot of solace. April 2013 saw me make two trips to Derbyshire and the area was to see me more than any other in that year. The of those April visits had me encountering banks of snow left over from a late winter as I hiked from Hayfield to Glossop, rounding Kinder Scout from below as I did so. The weather was much milder later in the month when I embarked on a circular yomp from Bakewell that took in both Ashford-in-the-Water and Monsal Dale. These were followed in June by a walk from Bamford to Edale that took in the southern edge of the Kinder Scout plateau and a walk from Monyash to Bakewell via Lathkill Dale. That last big walk of the year had me passing swollen rivers too; it had been a month of heavy rain and much flooding. A July escape to Fort William that took in Glen Coe and Glenfinnan could not have been more different with its sweltering temperatures and dry sunny weather. There also were sunlit walks from the Cat and Fiddle Inn back to my home that took in Shining Tor and Lamaload Reservoir. The first of these took me onto Rainow and Bollington while I passed close to Shutlingsloe on the second.
The combination of the scare that began 2013 and the loss of our mother meant that I tended to be more precious about my father and I suspect that my brother probably felt the same. The sense was that we could lose him sooner rather than later and it pervaded most of 2013. It sounds churlish to say it now but I started to wonder in the light of my father living longer than we might have expected if it was not before time to abandon any putting of my life on hold that there might have been. That is not to say that there was any sense of abandonment because, if anything, my visits to Ireland became more frequent. For much of 2014, I crossed the Irish Sea on a monthly basis.
In between those though, I began to get out and about again and last summer saw me make three visits to the Lake District. The first was to Buttermere when I crossed the top of Haystacks while the second facilitated a walk from Patterdale to Grasmere that went over the top of St. Sunday Crag and the last revisited Orrest Head and Loughrigg Fell. January and November saw me spend time around Llantysilio Mountain near Llangollen with the first trip enjoying bright sunshine all day and the weather disintegrating to spells of rain while I was up high. That makes an excuse for another return sometime though I did get more than a little compensation from spending some time by the Mawddach estuary near Barmouth the next day. There were more Welsh visits though with a summer solstice one that visited Sgyryd Fawr and Sugar Loaf near Abergavenny and a September retracing of steps between Rhossili and Port-Eynon in glorious weather. Yorkshire too saw a visit before the Tour de France did and that took in Pateley Bridge and Brimham Rocks in Nidderdale on a largely grey day. Northumberland was paid a visit during October with the delights of the coastline around Bamburgh being sampled on a day that felt more like it belonged to summer. Local trots around Macclesfield were not neglected either with Alderley Edge and Hare Hill seeing two visits. A pesky Jack Russell terrier took a set on my left leg the first time around so a hospital visit was advised and no such intrusion was experienced the second time around though I could have done with more sun.
There was more to my normalisation with a bike trainer being put to good use to see if my fitness could be bettered. The second half of 2014 also had my father see a good run of health that lasted until last month. There was a smaller scare in February 2014 but things steadied after that and I felt in the need of all that walking. Still, he was growing weaker as I found during last Christmas and I returned to Britain before New Year sensing that we might be on the cusp of a big change of some sort. In fact, I also wondered to myself how he would fare if he caught an infection. That question was about to get an answer only weeks later. A heavy chest infection was to confine him to bed after a traumatic experience when the nursing home thought him strong enough to sit up in a chair for a while. With that in mind, I made what I thought was a flying weekend visit in case there were to any further developments. Much of Saturday was spent with him and my brother was there too. When we left, he was comfortable and we thought that a peaceful night was in store. That changed after midnight and we dashed to the home. By the time that we got there, he had breathed his last only minutes before. Some would find that heartbreaking but the final peace is what I recall. His suffering was over and that nearly was more important than we might have felt.
A word said during one of the many conversations we had with others over the ensuing days remains with me: release. My brother and I felt it while nearby neighbours were stunned by our father’s departure; they surely felt it more than we did and some were crying on the phone to us. There may be another factor: we both had our homes and our lives while they see breakage in a continuity that they held dear. Also, the period with our father allowed us to come to terms with where things were going and have a partial glimpse of where things would go after he went. Of course, there are ups and downs as well as twists and turns of which we know nothing yet. The turbulence within me after my mother’s passing has not come after my father’s and there are times when I wonder why though that is not to see that there was no weeping or no jabs of the heartstrings. Maybe it’s that sense of release again.
There are matters that need attending yet but my mind also is starting to explore possibilities too. Visits to Ireland are sure to continue but not at the same frequency and certainly not with the same purposes as before though you hardly can abandon your relatives or former neighbours. There may be opportunities to visit places in Connemara, Mayo, Donegal or Wicklow that I have yet to see. That would be continuing something that they did after their own parents were deceased and there was many trip to Kerry and West Cork. Some of those gave me the love of hill country scenery that has taken me around so much of Britain and the Isle of Man. Over the past weekend, I was strolling around old haunts in Edinburgh like Blackford Hill, Bruntsfield Links and The Meadows before crossing over to newer haunts like Dean Village and Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. Except for the occasional incursion of rogue clouds, there was sun shining on me throughout and I pondered the possibility of spending a week in the city sometime. Even in a place like Edinburgh, there was much opportunity to wander down memory lane (I graduated from one of the city’s universities) and have time and space to yourself if you needed it. Nearer destinations will remain attractive in a new life situation.
Speaking of memories, there is one that returns to my mind when I mention Edinburgh for I gained a research degree in a science subject while there. My parents were hoping that I would find a job in Ireland afterwards but the world of science is an international one, especially if you fancy a career in academic research. Some of my contemporaries gained post-doctoral jobs in the U.S. and that option did appeal to me not a little. The phrase “seeing the world” came to my notice and sharing it while on a trip back to Ireland must have tugged rather too strongly on parental heartstrings for I was asked to leave such designs until after they were gone. Now, youthful naivety has been displaced by realism so I now am amazed at the sorts of thoughts that went through my mind back then, especially when after experiencing more of the delights of Britain and Ireland.
Even so, that is not to say that I am not tempted by foreign destinations. The likes of the mountains of Canada or New Zealand or the American Rockies may not be what I have in mind but other spots in Europe have a certain allure. For instance, business trips to Sweden appear to cultivated a soft spot from Scandinavian destinations such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Iceland. There are areas of hill country in three of those and any photos of Norwegian fjords that I have seen look stunning. The Faroe Islands also have detained my attention and it helps that they are compact too. Going there would build on a 2008 escapade that to Scotland’s Western Isles and the islands of Orkney and Shetland have not missed my attention either. To return to the European theme though, you cannot overlook the Alps or the Pyrenees and they are but some of the mountainous regions on the continent that get mentioned in walking magazines from time to time.
None of this means that responsibilities are about to be overlooked and it can feel that you are able to make new obstacles for yourself too. The ones that appear of their own accord are enough for anyone and a life after my parents will bring its ups and downs will come soon enough. In between, pondering those other destinations may bring its own comfort while realising that short visits only uncover so much. After all, I lived in Edinburgh for over four years and still have parts of it to see anew along with those nooks and crannies that I continue to revisit. As ever, only time will reveal what comes to pass and what adventures may be had yet.