Monday, 24 February 2020

The Best Books: Expedition, Steve Backshall

A return to exploring as it was, in the good old days. Or as close to it as you get in our modern jet-shrunk, digitally mapped, satellite photographed, tourist-travelled, economy-centric world. Harking back to a time where you really didn't know quite what to expect from your journey. When journey times were quoted to the nearest few days or weeks, rather than the nearest minute - and then complained about when not exactly right. When evacuation was a medical procedure, not a hope if anything went awry.

The sort of exploring in other words that I, along with many others I daresay, have dreamed of since childhood, but never had a realistic hope of engaging in. Do I have any greater hopes of doing so as a result of reading this book? Perhaps not. 

I have admired Steve Backshall's approach to things for a while now. He is unusual in the arena of television presenters that he still engages in the getting your hands dirty side of exploration and adventure. He is also unusual in his combining both the knowledge and expertise of the natural world, and ability in the graft of getting to see it in its natural habitat - no matter how remote or inhospitable. 

He also seeks to encourage a younger generation to do the same through his Deadly 60 programmes among others, and his involvement in the Scouts programme, something which I greatly benefited from as a youngster myself. 

I am confident that if we are to make a significant difference in reducing the impact of the human race on the planet then we need to start getting young people more interested in it. Unless they are interested in it, they will not love it enough to give a damn about it. And when they start caring about it, they will pressure policy makers and corporations, governments and industry to start making the necessary changes, or rather stop turning a blind eye to the issues. 

Slightly off tangent, but what this book did for me is remind me of some of the original excitement I had, and still have, albeit buried a little deeper these days, about the natural world as a source of excitement. A source, the best source of the unknown, the untried, the untested, the new, the ground breaking, the earth shattering, the fascinating and the mind blowing. It reminded me as I shadowed Steve on his adventures, that behind the book study, the degrees and the desk job as a conservationist, that my admiration for the natural world goes right back to the little boy who doesn't actually know for sure what is around the corner, over the hill, or under the water, but is pretty confident that it will be cool. 

Mr Backshall has had an opportunity in the endeavours described in the book to live childhood dreams, not just his own, but those of many hundreds and thousands of others. But he has also reminded me, and hopefully the collective 'us' of his readers that we too can find fascination in the unknowns presented by the natural world. And hopefully, going one step beyond, this along with his other efforts will be a small piece in the puzzle of reminded us as a civilisation, that it is worth looking after and protecting. 

And if that wasn't enough, its a gripping tale of adventure, friendship and danger. Definitely worth a read. 


Tuesday, 4 February 2020

In search of the white hare

"Early January, high on the moors of the Peak District National Park" 

That is unlikely to be a phrase that conjures up images of sunshine and warmth to anyone who knows the Peak District. And I can live with that, but on this particular day I really didn't want it to rain. I was taking my daughter up onto Bleaklow in an attempt to witness a rare sight in the UK, even rarer if you limit your purview to just England. The trip had to be made in winter, our goal is not there to be seen in summer. So back in the Christmas holidays we picked a free Saturday a few weeks away and hoped for the best. The night before the big day the Met Office forecast suggested cool, dull and very windy, but crucially no rain - we were on.

Loaded with warm and waterproof layers, cameras, binoculars and the de rigueur Thermos of hot chocolate, we left home early to complete the 1hr 20min journey before the traffic picked up, and to make the most of the short hours of daylight. Driving through the southern half of the Peak District in the incremental reduction in dullness that passed for sunrise that day, we talked about our goal for the day - white hares.

The only population of mountain hares in England, if you want to see them anywhere else in the mainland UK you're going to Scotland - by no means a problem, but a slightly longer trip. They are native to the UK, but the Peak District population is the result of a reintroduction  with the natively present populations having gone extinct previously. To the untrained eye in summer, relatively easy to confuse with Brown Hares, their lowland, non-native cousin. But in the winter, like a few other upland specialised species, there is no difficulty to determine what you have seen. The mountain hares turn white.

I've been pretty fortunate in my experiences with mountain hares. I used to see them often during the years I worked up on the moors of the Peak District, both in their summer and winter pelage, and have also seen them in Scotland. But my daughter had never seen one. A white hare was the stuff of folklore for her, and this trip was a dream fulfilment mission. No pressure then. 

Parking up at the summit of the Snake Pass, we battled our way out of the car in strong winds. The Met Office had nailed it. It really was cool (for a little girl getting perilously close to properly cold with the wind chill!), very dull with a thick blanket of grey cloud just skimming the high point of Kinder to the south and Bleaklow to the north, and very, very windy. Struggle-to-open-the-car-door-into-the-wind, sort of windy. Getting your outer layers on in those conditions is always fun, but we managed it. In the process I realised that I've still got things to learn as father to a young daughter. I hadn't tied her hair back, and it was already whipping around her face before we had even left the car. Whoops. She was not amused, and fair enough. It wasn't quite the start to the outing I had hoped for.

North was our direction of travel, our backs more or less to the wind to begin with. A wind that intensified as we followed the Pennine Way into its sunken channel, a natural and highly effective wind tunnel. Buffeted by the wind and out of sight of the surrounding moorlands we may not have been able to see any hares, but they were also relatively unlikely to catch sight of us. As we progressed further from the Snake Pass, we raised ourselves above the parapet occasionally to scan the moors with our binoculars - trench warfare. At one of these scouting sessions I spotted a blob of white far off on the edge of a depressions in the peat. Was it a hare!? No, it was a piece of a sheep, the rest obscured further into the depression. Disappointing but it was still early. We had as long as we wanted, or as long as a small person could put up with, whichever arrived first.

On our route up to Hern Clough we spotted hare droppings and frequently used runs through the cotton grass, heard the distinctive, staccato cackle of red grouse and the acorn symbols of the Pennine Way trail markers.  We were definitely on the right track, in more ways that one on this occasion.

The wind continued to blow us toward our intended destination, but it was also still mercilessly blowing hair into a not-as-smiley face, chilling little fingers and a little nose. Despite being wrapped up to the eye balls there was a very real risk that this wind, and the resulting cold was putting a downer on our little adventure. The trip, intended to fulfill a wish and ingrain positive, outdoor experiences, was at risk of becoming a negative, "why did we do this" sort of a trip.

Now of course, when out of doors with little people, versatility is the name of the game, and I was prepared for such an eventuality. On reaching Hern Clough, we turned and followed it downstream in an attempt to drop out of the wind. It didn't work quite as well as hoped... but we did eventually find a sheltered spot round a meander and behind a shoulder of the hillside where we perched for a bite to eat and some of the hot chocolate, a guaranteed spirit lifter. Now working on a circular route outlook rather than the original out and back route we were covering different ground, and were able to spy out into the dead ground of the stream valley ahead of us as we went. Still nothing.

As we reached a turning point in our route, literally, we needed to turn right and go back up hill, we found (drum roll please) some pieces of a white hair. Yep, pieces. A foot, a tail and a few other bones and bits of fur. Granted it was not quite what we had hoped for, but it was exciting enough to put a smile on a cold little face, and a smile on my face too. Not just because my daughter was a bit happier, but also because nestled into what was left of the tail was a sexton beetle, Necrophorus vespilloides, to be specific. In case you are wondering why a beetle which feeds on dead stuff puts a smile on my face, I wrote my Masters dissertation on them, so they bring back happy (and smelly) memories. Good times.

This finding, and the assurance that we were now heading for the car, put a little extra vigour into our pace but we still had a little way to go, and now had no formal path to follow. Navigation wasn't an issue, it was an area I knew and we had good visibility to pick out of reference points - the problem with no path was the trips and slips which result from walking through tall heather. We followed a fence line, and the sheep run that paralleled it, continuing to scout out for a blob of white. a few spells of sitting down, and an eventual caving in to the request for a ride on my shoulders (oh my poor aching back!) we were back in sight of the car in the distance. Surely now the motivation to keep going would be there, with the original goal of the trip now a distinct second place to getting back to the warmth of the car. Until.

"HARE!!" There it was, the legend incarnate. Hunched in the lee of a peat hag, white fur in striking contrast to the black peat, stationary and staring, just like us. We broke first, reaching for cameras, but it was faster out of the blocks and was up and gone. We watched it go and smiled. Mission accomplished. The rest of the journey was irrelevant. We had seen the white hare. Memory banked, positivity restored, foundation for future wildlife adventures reinforced. The magic rabbit had been pulled out of the hat in the nick of time, and saved the day.


Saturday, 4 January 2020

Looking forward by looking back. Thanks 2019.

A highlight of the year - our family holiday to the Isle of Skye. This was at Loch Coruisk 

Each New Year is an opportunity to consider whether you made the most of the one before, whether you used your time wisely, your opportunities to the full. 

I'll be honest, 2019 was good, but it could have been better. If I had used my time better, and stuck to my priorities without being distracted by less important calls on my time and attention, I'd have fitted in more quality time with my family (which should always be my number 1 priority), and more time enjoying and learning about the great outdoors. 

I shared some goals this time last year (see those here) for some noteworthy trips and challenges. Not all of them worked out, but I managed many of them, and added quite a lot more. The biggest omission was probably not being able to walk the route of Hadrian's Wall, a long held goal - in the end I just couldn't take off the time it would have required at the time of year I had intended to walk it. But its been there for 2000 years, I doubt it's going anywhere anytime soon. There will be another chance. 

Some of the 'adventures' have already featured in the blog, others haven't ... yet. There is another goal for this year, to make more of this blog. The posts may well be shorter to enable them to be more frequent but I can live with that. 

There was the trip to Wales with my brothers in February - that was a lot of fun and a rare opportunity to get time with my siblings. There was the family reunion to southern Scotland in April with my mothers side of the family, then the trip to the Isle of Skye with just our little family in early May. Good thing Scotland never gets old, in fact it seems to get better and better with every visit. There were family visits to the beach, a short trip over to Wales with one of my brothers for a last Hurrah before he went to live abroad for two years as a volunteer missionary for our Church. There were family days out in the Peak District in Autumn colours, and on winter days to see water falls. 

And in looking back on all that I think, 'Yea, we did alright'. But in looking back to what happened in between those adventures, large and small, the lost days because we got up late, or had jobs to do which I could have done the night before if I had foregone the telly. Or the evenings when I could have done something to earn a bit of extra pocket money to pay for a slightly more interesting adventure than I ended up doing... I think you can see the pattern. 

As such, I am not going to make specific 'resolutions', rather my goal for the year is to make better use of my time. Less TV, less social media, less lounging around, less late nights not really staying up for anything except to just stay up. More reading real books, more writing blogs or articles or books (I have a long list I'd like to write), more time facilitating adventures. 

And I use facilitating instead of planning because 'planning adventures' way too frequently turns into scrolling through Instagram looking at the latest fad for "influencers" and "content creators" to head to the same exotic place and take very similar photos of very similar places. And actually, that's not what I want. I want my own adventures, not someone else's left overs. 

By facilitating I mean more than dreaming or wishing, I mean really planning. Studying maps, setting routes, identifying potential wild camping sites, understanding travel requirements, finding the buses / trains / planes I will need to get there, understanding the likely cost of the travel, taking that into account in my adventure budget, understanding what time of year will be best based on what I want to see / peak season higher prices / weather conditions and so on, considering what equipment I will need based on where, when and what I will be doing - not just the latest cool must have gadget, but the items I will actually need to undertake the trip (which I am very grateful to say for me is a relatively short list these days, unless something has worn out or broken, or I am really pushing my comfort zone!), adding those needs into my adventure budget, then planning how I will save or make the money needed to hit that budget in time to achieve the goal, then making the money stretch by buying second hand or last season (because who cares if the colour palette doesn't match the latest catalogue), honestly assessing my fitness or capability levels and determining whether practice / training or formal instruction is required to get me physically ready for the endeavour, then setting a training plan to get me ready, following that plan, tweaking the route, checking the kit, practice packing it all in to make sure it fits, some demo journeys to see if I actually need everything I packed ... oh, and then actually going on the trip I suppose. 

Phew, that sounds like enough to keep me busy. 

So, goodbye 2019, thanks for the fun times, and thanks for the reminder than I can accomplish way more when I put my mind to it than we did together - my fault, not yours. 

Now then, 2020 - lets see what we can manage when we put our minds to it!

See you out there,


Monday, 2 September 2019

Meteors & Lighthouses

My one meteor photograph of the morning... room for improvement!
It's late on a freezing December night in the mid 1990's. A young boy and his dad give up trying to put up their tent at a friends farm in rural Wales. The ground is frozen solid - without a hammer there is no way they are getting those pegs in the ground. The alternative is the car, which seems like a poor option at first. Wrapped up in all his clothes and his sleeping bag the boy reclines in the passenger seat and hopes he will be able to sleep. But soon sleep is the last thing on his mind because the sky is falling!

Little did my dad and I know all those years ago that by pure chance we had picked the peak of the Geminids meteor shower for our winter camping excursion. The frosty temperatures resulted from a perfectly clear night which revealed a stunningly starry sky. As we relaxed - well, settled at least - into our cold but well windowed accommodation we realised that the 'stars' were a whole lot more active than usual. Meteors were falling, by the hundred. Or so it seemed to my little boys imagination nearly a quarter of a century ago (wow, I am getting old!). 


Not meteors, but the planes still look pretty
cool in photos! 
As a result of that experience as a youngster, the chance to watch a meteor shower will always grab my attention. I even took my girlfriend to watch the Perseids shower as one of our first dates just over 10 years ago... given that she has now been my wife for 9 years that worked out pretty well. 

Knowing that this year the peak of the Perseids meteor shower coincided with a break to visit family in rural Suffolk, where light pollution is less of a concern than urban Stoke (who'd have guessed it?!) we planned to try and watch the shooting stars again, this time sharing them with our children. That was the plan anyway. The night before the peak we sat out in the back garden for a few minutes and caught sight of a handful of meteors before retiring for bed, keeping our fingers crossed that the forecast of clear skies the following night would hold true. 

The next night the alarm was set for 2:15 am. Thank goodness I don't do that too often! I got up to check the skies were clear and then returned to help my wife wake up the children... except they would not be woken! Our 7 year old rolled over, pulled the covers over her head and told us to go away. The 3 year old didn't even stir despite extended shaking and repeatedly calling his name. Oh well, maybe next time.

The first of the dawn light competing with the last of
the stars. 
Laid on camping mats in the garden to take in as much of the sky as possible, we watched the 'show' for a while - the best kind of outdoor theatre. We probably saw a dozen or so in the 20 minutes we watched for, but the light spilling over from surrounding houses marred it a little. Emily very sensibly returned to a warm and comfy bed but I, sucker for punishment that I am, wanted to make a little more of the opportunity. I drove the 10 minutes out to the coast where I hoped there would be less light pollution to watch for a bit longer. It was worth the drive!

I also wanted to try to take some photo's, hoping to catch a shooting star or two. My previous attempts at astrophotography have been amateurish at best, and I didn't think these would be much better, but you've got to start somewhere. I set the camera up and took some test shots then set the camera running taking continuous shots hoping that a meteor would coincide with one of the images. The results were not great, but it was a chance to practice the technique at least. I caught one shooting star, a tiny smudge of a meteor - I think I picked the wrong bit of sky to point the camera at. Never mind, lessons learned. 

While laying on the ground looking up at the sky listening to the camera shutter repeatedly opening and closing, I became aware that the footpath sign just beyond my feet had changed shape. Confused and assuming I had dozed off and that my eyes were playing tricks on me, I stared harder at the sign. It moved. It took me another second or two to realise that the new shape was that of a Barn Owl which must have silently alighted while my gaze was directed elsewhere. It sat for a moment before going on its way with scarcely a sound - I think it heard me shift position for a better view. Having an owl, or any other wild animal for that matter, approach to within 10 feet of you is a pretty good way to start any day. And my day really was only just starting, it still wasn't even 5 am at this point!

I probably saw another 30 or so meteors before dawn started to colour and brighten the eastern sky, fading the stars until only the very brightest were still visible. Given my location on the east coast it would have been rude not to hang around for a bit longer to watch the sun rise out of the North Sea, a sight I don't get to enjoy all too often. I wandered north along the shingle for a few minutes until Orford Ness Lighthouse was more or less in line with where the sun would rise and waited. I figured the lighthouse would be a worthwhile addition to any photo's I may take. While completely alone, I was not without company. Hundreds of sea birds were waking up and flying off. Many of them had clearly roosted in the safety offered by the single spit of Orford Ness. The fisherman were up too - several trawlers chugged past me heading for deeper waters and pushing a wave after wave along the shore as I waited, each peeling off a cloud of gulls as it passed.

With half an hour or more until the sun was due to rise I played about with a few time lapses of the rolling clouds and brightening sky until the sun poked out from behind a large cloud on the distant horizon. It wasn't the most dramatic sunrise I've ever seen, but there is something about being witness to the birth of a new day which never gets old. Heading back towards the car, there was a lot more light to see what I had unwittingly passed earlier. Brown hares and curlews sat in the pastures reclaimed from the surrounding salt marsh. Reed buntings and other small birds sat atop the swaying reeds which lined the ditches. A lone seal, lounging on the shingle, stirred lazily as the day brightened, clearly contemplating the right moment to go in search of breakfast. I had been making a similar decision and was hoping that I'd be back in time to grab not only breakfast, but also 40 winks before the rest of the household woke up too!


The first peek of the sun rising behind the Orford Ness light house. 

Sunday, 28 July 2019


This is the second attempt at writing this - my internet did something funny and did not save the original! Not impressed)

Every child knows what a beaver is - with that big flat tail and those endearingly goofy and readily caricatureised incisors it is an easily recognisable and friendly creature. Sadly while they may be recognised, they could not have been seen in the UK until relatively recently. They have been absent from our shores for centuries having been hunted to extinction. They persisted in continental Europe and in North America too but even in these far less populous areas they suffered dramatically from hunting pressure.

Beavers are a fascinating animal. Experts far more knowledgeable and qualified than me have written about their value and importance as 'ecosystem engineers' and a 'keystone species'. This video about their return to Yellowstone was one which I enjoyed. Give yourself some time to Google 'Beaver Reintroduction' and enjoy the reading.

As with any reintroduction of a large mammal there are two sides to the story and not everyone is keen to see them back. Beavers perhaps even more so because of their ability and tendency to build dams (which raise water levels) and fell trees. This fundamentally changes the immediate environment around where they live and if your livelihood is linked to dry ground or trees there is a genuine economic concern there. All of this debate is fascinating and interesting and I hope to be able to take a greater part in it in the future but that isn't really what this blog post is about. This is about my trip to visit the River Otter Beaver Trial in Devon.

I've followed, if not closely then at least with great interest, the various Beaver Trials across the UK looking at the potential for re-introducing Beavers to the UK. While still controversial, they are perhaps a bit less so than some of the large predator suggestions. I've wanted for years to visit one of the trials and see for myself the ability of these big animals to engineer their environment for their own needs. In my current job for Staffordshire Wildlife Trust we have an organisational membership with the River Restoration Centre, and the RRC were arranging a visit to the River Otter Beaver Trial in association with Devon Wildlife Trust, which as a member, would be free... um, yes please and thank you, I'll sign up for that!

The visit was a whole day affair but Devon isn't exactly on Staffordshire's door step so my colleague Nick and I planned to go down the night before. This meant we wouldn't have to leave at the crack of dawn but also presented us with a window of opportunity to get out after dark and try to see the beavers in the flesh. Nick had visited before and knew the project manager so made some calls and got some tips as to where we stood a decent chance to seeing a beaver.

Equipped with some borrowed night vision binoculars (Thanks Dad!) and full of fresh Devonian fish & chips we parked up just as it was getting dark and headed down a path along the river otter. Not too far down river we found the first certain evidence that we were on the right track when we found a clearly beaver nibbled tree alongside the path. More excited than ever but shielding from a decent view of the river by the high vegetation we continued downstream to a point where we could get down to the bank itself and get a proper view up and down the river. Barely a few minutes after we arrived on the spot a subtle splash to our right heralded the arrival on the scene of a beaver effortlessly swimming against the current towing a bundle of vegetation. As it was by now pretty much pitch black and we were under the shade of the bank side trees too the Nigh Vision came into it's own and not only allowed a decent sighting but also records... I shared the video on social media at the time.

As we didn't think we were going to top that sighting, and by that time it was gone 11 we headed for our million-star hotel wild camping on the cliff tops overlooking the English Channel. It was well gone mid-night when we rolled out our sleeping bags under a sadly cloudy sky but boy what an evening it had been. Waking under pristine blue skies in the morning to bird song and the gentle murmur of water on the shingle. The millions-stars might have missed the mark the night before, but the hotel pool i.e. the English Channel was top-notch for a brief swim to get the day started.

From our overnight stop off it was just a few minutes to the start point of the day where we met with the RRC and DWT rep's who had organised the event and would be running the day. And what a day. It was amazing to see (in daylight) the scale of environmental modification which these animals manage. We saw dams ranging from tiny little collections of twigs you could easily write off as just natural accumulations of woody debris to huge constructions with a metre difference in water level on either side. Having tried my hand at daming streams as a child, like many others, and having managed a few decent structures in that time, I can tell you that a meter difference in water is quite an achievement!!

The Project Manager from Devon Wildlife Trust was knowledgeable and friendly and made the day not only an interesting wander but a genuinely educational few hours learning about beaver ecology, the specific circumstances of sharing land with such industrious little landscape architects. Obviously there is the potential for conflicts with land owners and managers - I am not blind to that reality. Particularly here in the UK we are a relatively crowded island and we manage our land accordingly, economic land use crowding the land designated and assigned as 'nature' or 'wild'. If you then start introducing animals which don't have a good grasp of the concept of boundaries and a physically capable of modifying their habitat beyond the boundaries of their immediate 'home' there will inevitable be compromises that have to be struck. That is just one, and there are still many other questions to be asked and answered about how a full and proper reintroduction would work.

But having seen this trial I would love for these amazing animals to be seen more widely in the British countryside. I could try to describe the day in detail but to be honest I am confident I could not do it justice - you just need to get to one of these trials and see for yourself what these fascinating animals can accomplish. Having the opportunity to stumble across a nibbled branch or a felled tree or a dammed stream while out for a stroll would be something I would love for my grand children. And maybe off the back of trial like this one they will do.


Monday, 1 July 2019

It's been a year! My not-so-new-anymore job.

Last week marked one year since I started working for Staffordshire Wildlife Trust on the ERDF SUNRISE Project. Its been a full and busy year! As I haven't really mentioned it all that much on this blog I thought it was worth an update.

My original role with the Wildlife Trust was as "ERDF SUNRISE Senior Biodiversity Projects Officer" ... I know, a mouthful. Pretty quickly I just referred to myself as a Delivery Officer because that described my role adequately. 

The SUNRISE Project which I had been recruited to work on is an urban green space restoration project. The project extends to 16 sites across the project area of Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme and funded by the ERDF (that's European Regional Development Fund in case you were wondering). On the subject of funding the total project budget was £3.6 million, of which the Wildlife Trust were responsible for coordinating about 50% of the funds on 13 of the sites. Enough to keep us busy then. 

Originally I worked with a project manager who had also been recruited as part of the project team but with some other responsibilities too. There had been some delays in the project getting started, and they weren't quite over when I joined the team but we got stuck straight in doing what we could while waiting for the admin side of things to get straightened out. While in some respects very different to my previous job up in the Peak District National Park - no moorlands, no helicopters, in the city vs out in the hills and so on - there were other elements that remained very similar. I was still working in a partnership, with land owners and other stakeholders, I was still writing work specifications and tenders, and I was still (and still am) supervising contractors so it wasn't a difficult transition on the whole. 

Time rolled on, the administrative delays eventually got straightened out and we started working officially - the first thing was to remove a weir from the River Trent, as you do. Then there was the wild flower seed which had been harvested earlier in the year to sow and the woodland management work to spec out and award to a contractor. The variety was welcome as if there was one thing about my last role (ignoring at this point the commute distance which was ultimately why I was looking for a new job) it would have been the opportunity to work in a range of habitats. Now I had rivers, wetland, grassland and woodlands to work with which was both a great learning experience and an opportunity to refresh my memory of some things I had learned previously but not necessarily put into action. 

The delays had caused some problems and required some changes, so the project plan needed to be revised to fit the new timescales and budgets had to be re-written to suit. This was a pretty involved task but helped me to get to know the in's and out's of the project detail far better than I would have done otherwise - while it was 'my project' it had ultimately been written by someone else. By the time I had re-written the project to suit the time available I felt like I understood it and knew it better.

Despite the delays and problems, things were moving forward but his role (and his commute) weren't suiting the Project Manager and he handed in his notice after about 6 months in post with his planned departure running out to the end of the year. This left a hole in the project team, and to cut a long story short I took on the role of project manager as well at the start of 2019 which was and still is I suppose an exciting if nerve-racking opportunity. The project team now consists of me and a couple of other team members who have 1 day a week allocated to the project for specific elements. 

6 months later and it hasn't all gone to pot yet. The project is still moving forward. It's not perfect, there are delays, changes, more admin work than I'd like but ultimately the project is going ahead. There has definitely been learning along the way, some of the learning curves steeper than other. Things like planning permission, large complicated construction work which is getting well into civil engineering territory, river restoration consents and permitting and quarterly project financial claims - all have required a fair bit of learning on the job!

What is there to look forward to? Well, the project has 18 months still to run, and a lot still to do, wildflower meadow creation, river restoration schemes (yes, multiple) and then we are back into a winter of woodland management and it will begin again next year, so on and so forth! There will be plenty to keep me busy delivering the project. But there is also the legacy, what comes next to sort out.

What I really hope, and have done from the beginning, is that this project will act as something of a catalyst to encourage more work in the project area on urban nature and habitats. While not a 'Stokie' I have now lived here for over 9 years, all my married life, I've studied 2 degrees here, both my children have been born here so it is home for now. I noticed years ago that there was a great potential for bringing nature into the city in Stoke and had various plans, with varying levels of reality to promote and encourage it. I even went to the point of making 'freedom of information' requests to get hold of Local Nature Reserve management plans to understand what was happening currently, but with other commitments had never got any of them past the drawing board stage.

When I saw the jobs for this project advertised it felt like a opportunity to put some of those mental plans into practice so I was a little bit disappointed when I found out that the project plan was already in place and I was just going to be delivering it. The project legacy will be where I may have a chance to put a little bit more of my plans and ideas into action, but that is the next job ... watch this space!   


If you would like to see more about the project, check out the project website at

My twitter account is going to focussed on my work from now on too so keep up to date with that at @talesofawildguy. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Daddy-Daughter Wild Camp: Summer Solstice Microadventure

"The longest day of the year" - that always sounds dramatic doesn't it. Is it also a little sad? Almost as if the year is saying, "You've got less sunshine from here on, sunshine, make the most of it!" Last year on the longest day I was making the most of it, I think so anyway. I was walking down a river in Wales - read about that adventure here. This year I had originally considered walking Hadrian's Wall around the solstice weekend but had changed those plans to do something I could include the family in - the end result was a plan to go camping with my daughter. Excellent.  
A month or so back Alistair Humphreys (if you haven't heard of Mr Humphreys you should check him out, I find his approach to encouraging people to 'live adventurously' both motivational and realistic) issued a challenge to #goniceplacesdonicethings over the summer solstice weekend; specifically encouraging people who struggle to fit 'adventure' into their life to get outside and do something attainable. Oh, and there were prizes too, you know, added motivation. In any event, any uncertainty there may have been that we would get out that weekend vanished. The fervent and hopeful weather forecast watch began and the specific plans started to materialise.  
The final resolution on location came when my old colleagues up in the Peak District informed me they were having a BBQ that evening and invited me to come along. We would drive up to the Peak District, drop in to the BBQ to see some old friends and then find a secluded, quiet spot for 'little wild guy' to experience her first wild camp*. She wasn't quite ready for the full bivvy bag only experience (which is a shame as the weather would have been perfect for it and I love my bivvy bag!!) so we took my small hiking tent along instead.
Suitably stocked with snacks, sweets and a large thermos flask of hot chocolate we parked Rhino (the family adventure wagon) below Mam Tor and walked up to Hollins Cross before turning right and heading for Lose Hill at the eastern end of the Great Ridge while the sun set on our left over the Kinder Plateau. To be honest, this was a greater distance than I had remembered from previous visits and the littler legs of the party were starting to lag before we reached the spot we were aiming for, but reach it we did. 
We tucked in to a modest supper of crackers, cheese, salami, M&M's and hot chocolate before putting the tent up in what was by then - about 10:15pm - fast falling light. Little wild guy was out like a light seconds after snuggling into her sleeping bag giving me a chance to do a bit of reading - "The Kindess of Strangers": watch this space for a Best Books entry soon - as the light blue darkened to navy and filled with stars, and the warm glow receeded from a significant chunk to a sliver along the north-western horizon. 

After a good nights sleep we did it all again, in reverse. The tent, the meal, the walk, the car - getting home mid morning on another beautiful sunny day filled with plans and chores. Little guy had slept well. "More comfortably than in her own bed" were the words she used. Our wildcamp had been a success then! It certainly was for me anyway - I had slept well too, enjoying the occasional awakening providing opportunities to glance up and out of the tent door (we may not have been in bivvy bags but I left the tent door open as a compromise) and see the stars, then the first hint of dawn, then a pre-sunrise glare girding it's loins behind scattered cloud before eventually full morning and daylight was upon us once again. This may have been the first daddy-daughter wildcamp but it won't be the last. And the littlest wild guy, my son, was extremely jealous of big sisters adventures and is desperate for one of his own ... Oh, alright then, if you insist son...