I’m a walker not a climber but high on Gwen Moffat’s autobiography Space Below My Feet, the mountains of Snowdonia beckoned and at Easter we headed for Birmingham-on-Sea: Barmouth.
You know that moment at the start of a walk? When you aren’t really planning on anything more than just going just a bit of the way? Perhaps just up to the viewpoint and then turn back because you haven’t got any sandwiches or a coat, because the peaks belong to the Berghausers and the sheep?
That. That was the plan when we pulled into Dôl Idris Car Park, starting point of the Minffordd Path for the Cader Idris climb/walk, the steepest route up Wales’ second highest peak. There was no way we were fit enough or prepared for a proper hike.
While Pete took photos of lichen and waterfalls, however, I carried on up the stone steps of the wooded gorge.
I had rediscovered walking quite recently on my sabbatical break in 2016, around the houses and streets and canals of Brum. And this reminded me of a pilgrimage trek up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, 20 years ago, when it was one long staircase to the summit and the smell of embrocation cream filled the air at junctions as Buddhist pilgrims stopped to massage cramped calves.
I’ll just get above the tree line, I thought; see if I can get into a good position to see a low-flying jet along the Mach Loop. (That morning we’d climbed up a gusty mountainside at Mach Bwlch but to no avail. Spotting them is pure luck as there is no timetable.)
I was alone. But a family of Russians was walking just ahead – parents, teens and children. They carried on, so I did too.
The ground levelled out above the tree line and contoured round the grassy hill into a large open valley surrounded by a horsehoe of steep slopes. It was hard to tell which was Cader Idris’s peak of 2930ft.
At this point I asked a returning walker how far it was to Llyn Cau, the lake below the summit and he said about an hour. With barely a bar of signal, I texted Pete to say I was going for it.
The hour rolled round but there was no sign of the lake. The legs started to go as the path rose ever upwards. I was so hot with exertion, all I wanted to do was jump in that damn lake. I literally inched my way onwards, getting tireder with each step but knowing I must be close. Around every turn and over every bluff I expected to see it but there was just more path.
And then there it was – suddenly a huge, dark, sparkling lake. A turning point. Most walkers carried on to the ridge so I had it to myself, barring a couple who collapsed immediately at the edge so it was no bother to walk a few minutes further on to my own triumphant flop by the water’s edge.
I should have gone for a wild swim; I was hot enough even in the cold mountain air. But, worried that Pete was getting worried – I’d been gone two hours – I stripped off my walking boots to enjoy a paddle and some recovery time.
Of course, there were some posed ‘adventure style’ selfies with the peak of Wales’ second highest mountain behind me. (Actually I got totally the wrong peak lined up – the photos are of a high ridge with the summit further along. Perspective from below a near vertical wall can be pretty screwy.)
Peaceful moment of reflection. Happiness that I could still walk that far and high. Astonishment at the fearsome landscape. Looking around, and across Snowdonia’s misty gradations, there was no doubt I’d climbed above the Faraway Tree into a magnificent other-world where the mountain is in charge of your destiny.
The danger signs at the seemingly tame start seemed perfectly reasonable now, warning of the risk of getting disoriented in bad weather and walking off the edge into oblivion.
Most accidents tend to happen on the way down, however – tiredness, lack of concentration, adrenaline drop maybe. Several times I nearly twisted my ankle as I skipped down the mountain for an hour’s fast descent. Running downhill is easier on the knees and muscles than walking slowly and carefully but probably not recommended.
Back at the car, I knocked on the window – Pete was just waking up from a long nap, not mad with worry about ‘the wife’. Which, frankly, was a relief. Wish I’d swum now.
Under cover of the woodland a jet plane rumbled in the distance and we glimpsed the outline of a transport plane as it flew directly over the canopy. I felt elated. This was my reward for inadvertently climbing a mountain.
That and, as is the British way, a pot of tea and a scone in nearby Tal-y-llyn, looking back up in wonder at the mountains of Southern Snowdonia and thinking: ‘Yes! I’ve been up there.’
Just back from a five-mile guided walk around the Clent Hills to see large swathes of English bluebells – a darker, more delicate and aromatic flower than the invasive Spanish bluebell that has taken over my own back garden and which I pluck out, to no avail.
Adrian, our National Trust guide, told us that around half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK – they grow well in our relatively cool spring climate, and are under threat from climate change. The warmth favours the Spanish bluebell, however: a wider leafed, sturdier, lighter plant, which is edging out the now protected native bluebell. Unfortunately, we found a small patch of Spanish bluebell on the trail, which is worrying. Hopefully Clent’s volunteer conservationists can get right on it and root them out.
The three-hour guided walk was a test of stamina, down the hill from the National Trust’s Nimmings Road café, up and over stiles, and into Uffmoor Wood for the first close-up view of a classic carpet of woodland bluebells.
We were instructed that bluebells can take years to recover well from footfall damage so we had to be careful where we walked and not trample them. It is also against the law to intentionally pick, uproot or destroy bluebells. Adrian told us some of the fairy lore around bluebells but perhaps that is more for the kids, or maybe a way to keep them off these delicate plants.
Sadly, two older ladies in the group had to turn back at this point as the stiles were difficult and the walk relatively pacey. Inclusion is hard but it was a wise move to turn back as I’m certain they really would have struggled on the terrain ahead if they’d continued.
We emerged from the wood and turned back across Penorchard Meadows Nature Reserve where three horses were at pasture in one of the largest remaining areas of semi-natural grassland in Worcestershire. The white horse (auspicious for success and good luck allegedly) came over for a nuzzle. It was a lovely English pastoral scene. A little further on, wild garlic was growing down by the stream, fragrant and in full flower.
I learnt only recently that you can cook wild garlic – apparently it’s particularly nice in a mushroom risotto and more mellow flavoured than traditional garlic. Both the leaves and flowers are edible but you have to be careful not to confuse it with poisonous Lily of the Valley, which is resembles before it flowers. Walk leader Adrian also suggested some recipes such as including it in a wild garlic pesto.
Next we came to the spring and church of St Kenelm, who was martyred on the site in the year 820. Said to be a place of healing, people had tied bits of cloth with name dedications to a sacred tree (well, a hawthorn but needs must) in the hope of a blessing. I haven’t seen this done since finding one of the slopes of Glastonbury Tor in 1999. It feels like something that probably harks back hundreds or even thousands of years.
The long walk back up Walton Hill saw off a few more walkers suffering sore knees and tiredness; there was a shorter option back to base from there. The views to Birmingham and Brierley Hill were misty and grey but the sun was finally about to come out.
There are bluebells in many areas across the Clent Hills, but the best was yet to come. As the path steepened into a climb up into the woodland on Walton Hill, I don’t think I’ve ever taken such good shots of bluebell woods.
I’ll also remember this section for one lady picking up discarded plastic bags containing dog poo. I remember so many ‘pick up your litter’ campaigns when I was growing up, maybe it’s time for another national campaign to remind people? Even using a stick to flick the mess off the walking path would be better than leaving non-biodegradable plastic all along the trail.
This same lady was a long distance walker who had walked the whole 630 miles of the South West Coastal Path. She and another litter-picking chap gave me lots of advice about my own plans to do walk there later this year: build in breaks, alternate long and short walks, check the last bus times back, etc. The sociable aspect of these walks is a draw for many.
By the end, I had slowed to be the last walker in the line, the final push up the hill turning my legs to jelly.
Clent did have a final surprise in store, though: the unusual sight of bluebells growing out in the open. Usually they grow in cool shade but I think these patches of open hillside behind the Four Stones atop Clent had just had bracken removed. Bluebell colonies take five to seven years from seed to flower so this purple carpet may not survive in future – but they are here now, and look stunning.
This was a lovely (if occasionally testing) walk with great views of the great English bluebell – also poetically known as Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap and Witches’ Thimbles – and we enjoyed informative guiding at the bargain price of just £2.50.
Recently I’ve enrolled as a volunteer at Clent Hills to learn bushcraft skills and help at corporate team days (more on that in a future post), so it was good to be back on the hills.
The bluebells should be there for another week or two, maybe til mid-May, so get up there for some purple haze before everything fades to green once more.
This Al Humphreys‘ inspired microadventure has been on my list of to dos for a while. His challenge to city folk in need of adventure is to catch a train out to the country and walk back home. So simple, yet why haven’t I done it?
The thing that has inspired me to actually get on this challenge is watching Poldark. I’ve just finished series three and those broiling seas and wild Cornish coastlines have got me thinking about doing a long-distance coastal walk later this year (as part of one of my many 2019 resolutions to do a challenge that I have to get fit for).
So this walk was like a test. Would I enjoy it? Could I even go the distance with my dodgy foot arches? Would I have the guts to get off the road and walk solo back into the city? Would I feel like doing it all again tomorrow or be seized up on the sofa?
My local train route shoots from Birmingham city centre out to Redditch and Worcester beyond. The first question was how far out do I go? Alvechurch was definitely a stretch with a certain search engine suggesting it was a 2.5-hour walk home – I usually walk for up to an hour – but it also felt doable… about five stops out on the train and seven miles on foot. I later discover Its B48 postcode is the highest and last of the proper Birmingham B postcodes.
With no plan but a window of sunshine, I sent out some callouts on Twitter and Facebook to see if anyone wanted to join me. Quite a few friends seemed up for it, given a bit more notice – you know who you are; I’ll be roping you in on a future walk.
The train out of town was nearly empty. From the comfort of my seat, walking the ever-lengthening distance back seemed impossible. But one thing I’ve learnt from my local walkabouts of the past two years is that everywhere seems too far until you actually walk to them. Places I used to hop to the car are now quite doable by shank’s pony.
Past Longbridge we go, past where the old Austin and British Leyland car factory used to be – now ironically a car park – and the edgelands of Birmingham before the green fields and pastures of Barnt Green and Alvechurch in North Worcestershire fill the train window.
I get off the train in full sunshine and check the route options. The search engine satnav offers a ‘walking’ route, which goes via busy A-roads and takes 2 hr 27 – so specific. But I can see there is a slightly longer canal route that veers east to Hopwood so I head for that, albeit with some trepidation – as a solo female I never feel that comfortable walking on canal towpaths. Still it is the weekend and there look to be quite a few people on their narrowboats at Alvechurch Marina so I duck down onto the path of the Worcester/Birmingham canal.
It’s a picturesque start to the walk and for the next 40 minutes, I fairly stride along the towpath, passing the occasional human – a mum with a buggy, several dogwalkers, a jogger. There are fishermen and reservoirs and teenage couples hanging out on humpback bridges. I pass underneath the M42 motorway bridge and the white noise of traffic is loud and invasive. I feel glad I’ve skipped the road route but don’t feel safe enough to put my music on, which is usually a big part of feeling uplifted and keeping the pace up on my walks.
At Hopwood House pub, about a third of the way home, I check in my location on Twitter and review the next bit of the route. I’d assumed I’d get on the 60mph A-road as per the satnav as the canal is about to duck under a tunnel for nearly 3km. But it looks as if you can sort of go over the top of the canal and pick it up again at the city edgelands of Hawkesley – a bus terminus area for my local 35 bus. Phil B on Twitter confirms taking the scenic route and suddenly things get muddier and emptier, with barely a soul about.
I pass two lots of two men walking – one possibly a father and son, the other pair equally unthreatening. I feel as if I’m getting strange looks but it could be that they don’t want to make me feel uncomfortable so are looking for cues from me first. I say hi, as any walker would, and stride on.
I suspect most women view the world through a certain lens of safety checks and risk assessment, and I notice how I adapt to my fears now. I walk tall, have my hands out of my pockets (ready), and try to look confident and alert and not like a victim – all things I learnt from life in south London and some free self-defence classes from Lewisham council.
When I see a solo man in the distance, I tie and tuck my blonde hair under an army green wool hat – a reaction to past experiences of showing my femininity in public and this being an invitation to being followed and approached. In case of mugging, I’ve hidden my cards and identifiers in a coat pocket, leaving just some cash and a water bottle in my bag. My keys are in my pocket and my phone ready to hand.
I feel a bit sad that I do these things but I also think of talks I’ve been to by RGS explorers, who do far, far riskier things than I, and how risk taking is about preparing for your expedition and trying to mitigate the things that can go wrong.
On a positive note, it’s the conquering of these fears and the ‘knowing’ what is out there and the ‘doing of things anyway’ that ultimately brings relief from the fear and anxiety. Take it from someone who is constantly fighting their comfort zone.
Now I’m growing in confidence. When the canal disappears into the 2.5km Wast Hills Tunnel, I head over the top to a country lane and turn immediately off it onto a North Worcestershire national footpath. I don’t even check my phone map. My sense of direction tells me I’m walking in parallel to the A441. I check for cows – which make me nervous – and then follow the route across several fields.
Without music I find myself coming up with an acronym for all the random shit I do, things that people have started commenting on and which I have found myself recently responding to with ‘This is what you do when you don’t have kids’. I am a ‘Woman Adventurer No Kids Early Retirement’. Or as my lovely friend Paul suggested ‘Tearaway Outgoing Surfer Sister Enjoying Rambling’. Either way, it keeps me humble without giving up bragging rights.
There are a couple of surprises before I enter the city boundary. One, a sudden colourful sign on the country lane announcing ‘Welcome to the Wast Hills Autism Services’. Two, a random tower-like building with a face that looks like it is wearing a hard hat – this turns out to be the Birmingham University Observatory, for the teaching of physics, astrophysics and astronomy. They do events for the public (ooh!).
One minute there are green fields and woodlands, the next the sharp brick edge of the city. This is Hawkesley, which features one of those maze-like estates full of small disorienting veiny roads, curves and cul-de-sacs. Twitter tells me there are no dead-ends and to follow a direct line pedestrian pathway straight through the maze. I ask a local to be sure. They wish me good luck like I’m a proper explorer. I cross at Seals Green, which bridges some small unnamed brook.
I desperately need the loo, and sadly not in the way that involves nipping behind a bush. What would a Cornwall coastal path walker do? There are no pubs or cafes. Just endless suburban housing. I ponder knocking on a door and asking to use the loo but then think how utterly impolite it would be to leave such an aromatic gift with total strangers. I walk on in agony but eventually the pain goes away.
This is a strangely empty estate, devoid of people except for the occasional bus terminus drop-off and driving lessons taking place on the deserted roads. I’m amazed at how I’ve walked for two hours from country to city on a Saturday and only seen handful of people and moving cars. For the UK’s second city, it is so peaceful. Disconcertingly so.
A line of blue pops up on the map. The Wast Hills Tunnel is at an end and the canal drifts slowly out into daylight again. The towpath here is sunken down with tower blocks overhead and the sound of lads somewhere in the dank distance behind me. I feel vulnerable again and, despite the tiredness in my legs, speed up my pace.
I’m nearly at Kings Norton and from there it is the home stretch down to Stirchley. I meet no one on the canal until I reach the junction with the Stratford canal, where a police dog van is in attendance after an arson attack on the historic tollhouse exactly a week ago.
From here it is another 20 minutes or so to walk home. I’m back on familiar ground and the canalside quinces are in full pink blossom over pink graffiti.
My legs are starting to seize up but I’m elated at having come so far and facing my fears. I remind myself that the reality is almost never as bad as the perception. Someone later points out that seven miles is like a walk to the shops for them; but that is how a change in your perspective can shorten distance. I’d never in a million years thought I could walk from Alvechurch, where my sister used to live and where I used to balk at going in the car.
It took two hours and 22 minutes to walk from Alvechurch to Stirchley, from Worcestershire to the West Midlands, from B48 to B30. I beat Google’s algorithm by 10 minutes.
Could I do it all again tomorrow? Luckily I’m saved from a follow-up walk by Storm Freya. Perhaps if this were Cape Cornwall and I had a tricorn hat and boots… but still I think I might need a bit more practice first.
I’ve just discarded my initial 600 words on why it was such a challenge to get on a plane on my own and fly to Fuerteventura this winter. The less angsty, need-to-know summary is that I’ve been pretty conflicted about travelling in recent years. I was a frequent backpacker when I was younger, seeking out the cheapest huts, sleeping on one-inch mattresses, overlanding entire subcontinents for a fiver, etc, etc. I even turned my travel passion into something of a travel writing career.
But now I hate the flying, the research, the anxiety of going somewhere new and the suspicion that no one will talk to me if I do, being 50 and all that. Where did all this crippling angst come from? I don’t think it is age; I think it is the lack of risk-taking once you settle down. (I never thought I’d settle down.)
And so it was quite the emotional challenge to book a week in Fuerteventura at the end of November – one I’d spent nine months procrastinating over.
In the end, I booked two days before flying (in case I changed my mind) and snagged the last dorm bed in the only available cheap accommodation left in Corralejo – a surf lodge on the deserted edge of town for about £14 a night. I tried not to think about who I’d be sharing with but the thought that the mixed dorm might be all-male did freak me out. It’ll never happen I told myself.
At least I’d been to Fuerteventura before (for a birthday surf and bodyboard) so I didn’t have to stress about going somewhere totally new. And my friend Kerry was flying out a few days later on her own trip so I would have someone to talk to for half the week.
Here are some snippets from my diary of what it was like, ending on the question: ‘Would I do it again..?’
I’m in a surf house that sleeps 10 people at the edge of town where the signpost says you are now leaving Corralejo. It’s actually pretty nice. It has a pool and a terrace and a large kitchen, albeit no space in the fridge.
I’m in a mixed dorm but in reality I’m sharing a stifling, slightly smelly room with three men: Jon, a surfer from the Basque Country; Alex, a 50-year-old Italian boat captain and kite surfer who looks a bit like George Clooney, and another guy who didn’t come home last night but is now sleeping and snoring his way through the daytime.
I’m here for the chance to walk, swim, exercise and generally get outdoors in the sunshine. The first frost has landed back home. Here, the light here is beautiful; there’s a soft warmth in the blue sky, even if the sea requires a brave plunge.
Over the past 10-15 years I realise I’ve been gradually upgrading my travel choices. I’ve paid ever higher amounts for comfort, privacy and location.
A dorm bed in a share house has brought me back down the earth. There was no door-to-door airport transfer, either: I had to walk down a dark, deserted street behind a walled-off hotel complex and use a torch to find SurfinTrip Academy and Camp house.
It’s been a thrill already, even if it is the thrill of risk. I want to still love all this; me, a middle-aged woman with a rather large comfort zone. It’s good that I did this by myself and see what it’s like to drop out of my life for a few days.
It’s Mum’s 17th anniversary and I’m taking some time to remember her today. She would say ‘Go for it!’ – she always did.
I spend breakfast with the chainsmokers on the patio and the rest of the morning doing the chores of the self-catering budget backpacker: shopping at Hyperdinos and walking the long sweaty road home loaded down with heavy water and basic foodstuffs in the midday heat. Then I walk another hour to get to sunset, before realising I have my easts and wests mixed up and it’s on the other side of the island. So. Much. Walking.
It’s a pleasant evening at ‘home’, talking with a French Canadian surfergirl who’s become addicted to surfing and is 18-months into a backpacking trip with no return ticket, and a 27-year-old bubbly lady from Leeds who’s fresh off the plane. Later Captain Clooney points out Cassiopeia and other constellations in broken English like a scene from a John Cusack movie. I get no sense that he is going to make a move, though, thankfully; this is just a friendly ‘let’s look at the stars’ thing because the clouds have cleared away and a starry night sky remains one of the best things ever.
These people are my temporary family, made up of random strangers from around the world who are not so different from me, or at least who I used to be.
Today a classic ‘dirty old man’ at the beach made eye contact with my unfocused, unspectacled eyes while I was drying off from a swim, and took it as an invitation to lurk. No, no. no. I thought I’d be too old for this particular joy of lone female travel.
After dinner (Kerry has arrived!) we walk along the seafront for a nightcap tea and Tia Maria coffee at Waikiki Bar. I was dreading the long walk home and sure enough the busy road was now dark and deserted but for the occasional car.
I don’t mind the dark or the emptiness, it’s when there are potential opportunistic humans around that I get uptight. I pull out my Swiss army knife and thread the corkscrew through my fist. The massive closed Aqua Park is the worst, with its broken chainlink fences and large car parks and Scoobydoo-like giant galleon rearing out of the ground with lion leaping off it. I try not to picture being jumped and dragged in there to die in a deserted fairground.
‘It’s all about risk-reward’ – this line from the young trainer at the UoB gym kept going through my brain. The risk in that walk back didn’t seem worth the reward.
From this point on I moved to Kerry’s accomm. Although this has ended on a bit of a downer, I had a fantastic week’s break and I did get a lot from going back to budget backpacking if only for a few days.
It was fun, a bit uncomfortable but a good way to meet new likeminded people. I wasn’t the oldest person there, to my surprise, and no one was ageist in the slightest. In fact, I found myself remembering how open and considerate and up-for-life the average backpacker is.
As for my travel fears, the public bus to the airport was also way faster and cooler than the rammed and rambling airport shuttle – and it was cheaper. I didn’t take Valium on either plane journey for my fear of flying, and I was surprised at how little I fretted about these flights – an advantage of short-haul daytime flights and of booking last minute.
Would I do it again? I surely would.
Would I spend 11 months arguing with myself about booking it? Probably, but I’m working on it.
It’s true, a few Atlantic Islands claim to be Europe’s Hawaii but Fuerteventura does lay a good claim to it as the north shore has massive waves and really does catch that laidback surfie vibe.
This was the whole reason I wanted to go to FV for my 50th – to bodyboard some waves. But I have to say I was pretty nervous, even though we were going out with a local surf school. The winds had been up for days and only a few brave souls were in the water.
Protest Surf School took us to Piedra Playa, south of El Cotillo – a well-known surf spot with long wild beaches and big fat Atlantic waves. We pulled up on the hill above the beach a few times before the boss settled on an area where we wouldn’t get too mashed.
I did try surfing a few times – but I really can’t do that Point Break ‘pop’ up on to the board. Never have been able to. Even when they showed me the sneak’s way to stand up (all fours first), I was just too tired to stay up. So I reverted to Plan A, which was to get my bodyboarding on, thanks to previous training at Bodyboard camp.
Despite the rips and strong undertow parallel to the beach, I caught a few high-speed rides in on powerful white waves (the green ones were way too far out). Two hours of ‘woo’ and I felt fantastic. Swimming twice a week for the past eight months has really helped my fitness, even if my upper arms have a way to go yet.
It was fab to be in the surf in February in the sunshine, with Atlantic rollers rising up and breaking in the distance and regular ridable sets coming in. The last time I did this was Brexit Referendum result day – and like then, the overall physical commitment of surfing was enough to completely empty my mind of anxiety and bad stuff. I guess this is why surfing is such a spiritual sport.
I was a bit jealous of the surfers but I reckon I caught way more rides. Here’s one of them (pics by Pete Ashton). Hey surfer, no dropping in on my ride!
I don’t know why –I suspect it is something to do with being brought up on 1970s disaster movies – but I love volcanoes and volcanic islands. Visiting Keli Mutu in Flores, Indonesia, in 2002 probably tops the list of my volcanic visits. Since then I’ve mostly been getting my fix in the Canary Islands.
So far I’ve visited La Gomera and Lanzarote, and been very impressed with both. This year for my 50th birthday we went to Fuerteventura and on day two decided to walk around 10km from Lajares to Corralejo along four or five craters and volcanic badlands, and also climb the Hondo caldera.
We hitched a quick ride from a friendly French surfer to get to the camel parking (!), then began our hike. We had to turn back from the non-official route up to the Hondo crater because it was too steep and slippy, and Fuerteventura was delivering some of its famous 40mph winds. There was a grave on the way up so I think it was the right decision not to push ahead. I turned back at the rock circle.
Instead we walked a contour line around the back of the crater and up to a viewing platform that was overrun with chipmunks. Chipmunks and camels, who knew FV’s fauna was so unusual?
The drop of 70m down into the crater was pretty dizzying, and we could see two people dots on the opposite steep slope, giving it ridiculous scale. You’d have to zoom in to see them.
In the other direction we could see vigorous Atlantic rollers crashing along the wild north-west shore. I’d be bodyboarding in that tomorrow, I thought, with a fair bit of trepidation.
The colours are all shades of warm brown, peach and orange, making FV kind of glow in the sun. Although the wind is relentless but you can usually find a sun-warmed lava rock shelter of some kind – and a herder’s hut is where we stopped to have our bocadillo picnic. It really is beautiful.
The journey back took us along a dirt track road via a few more craters and badlands, with goats straying along the sides. It was pretty deserted – we saw one runner and one car on our three-hour walk through the peaceful but desolate scenery.
In the near distance we could see Corralejo and its two large wind turbines spinning fast from the north wind on Bristol Playa but the distance was like a desert oasis illusion – the more we walked, the further away it got.
Our city legs were seizing up by the time we hit the final Bayuyo Crater and walked into town, but those rooftop beer sundowners were some of the best beers of the trip.
A random wish on my sabbatical list – and one of the toughest for me as a night owl – was to get up at dawn for a week to see what it would feel like and discover if/how it would change my day/life.
With sunrise at 4.45am in June and dawn at 3.55am, this was a bit too much of a stretch. Still, on the week of the longest day of the year I started to go to bed at 10.30pm in order to get up at 6 – three hours earlier than usual.
Three spare hours at the start of a day! What would you do?
Birmingham is a city often maligned and mistaken for a concrete jungle. Its critics are not aware of how much greener it is than, say, London. We have so many tree-lined streets but also a multitude of parks and recs. Within 30 minutes walk of our house, for example, are 12 or so parks: Kings Heath, Highbury, Cannon Hill, Holder’s Lane playing fields, Row Heath playing fields, Hazelwell, Stirchley, Muntz, Cotteridge, Cadbury’s ladies recreation ground, Bournville and Raddlebarn/Selly Park.
Waterwise, there is also the Lifford Reservoir, the Rea Valley Route, and the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. And, of course, my local Hazelwell Allotments to which I have the key.
I didn’t consciously set out to explore the parks and open spaces of south Birmingham in the early morning hours but it was a natural consequence of walking any short distance. The sun was shining, most people were still asleep or at breakfast, the day felt fresh and new. I downloaded a playlist on to my phone and started walking wherever (admittedly sometimes singing, dance-walking or air-drumming) to the beat of the music.
Here’s what I saw…
The walking felt good, the views were uplifting, the day started with a feel-good factor, and the music was a key part of the experience, giving me a lift and making me walk further and further, for an hour or more at a time. Coming home, my tea and toast never tasted so good. I even fitted in a meditation for extra deep levels of calm and relaxation, or visited a friend for a tea. And I still haven’t got over the weird feeling of having done so much and it being only 8 o’clock.
There were some downsides: losing my creative time at the end of the night and needing a nap to get through the day. But…
At the end of the week I was convinced enough to keep going with this new regime of getting up early Monday to Friday (and lying in at the weekends). Sunset walks were added, walks with friends and some trips further afield…
On one walk I even discovered a secret canary yellow canalside breakfast caff in Stirchley, called the Barge Thru Café. It caused quite the stir on Twitter and I felt a little Lewis and Clark, discovering new things in an area where everything seems to be known. A breakfast expedition with other Stirchillians is already being planned – and if not a walk, an approach by raft or inflatable like the pioneers we aren’t. The adventure continues.
It has had a big effect on me, and my mental and phyiscal health, this getting up early malarkey. This is the call to action bit. Is anyone else interested in an early morning walk around the B13, B14, B29, B30 post codes – there are some areas I don’t want to venture alone, namely the canals and commons.
It’s raining heavily on arrival in Dubrovnik and it’s freakishly cold. We are wearing all the clothes and hats. This is not the only shock. The taxi from the bus station to Ploče charges a £12 set fare to go a couple of km, it’s £18 just to walk the town’s bloody walls – that’s each – and, worse still, a medium glass of so-so wine costs £7. Come back Zurich, all is forgiven.
“Everything is better is Croatia,” my Croatian ‘sister-wife’ Anita, the UK-famous inventor of the chocolate crumpet, repeatedly tells me – and I want to believe her. An old guidebook tells me the walls cost only £3 for access not so long ago, so this is probably the Games of Thrones effect. There really should be a different Dubrovnik price for non-GOT fans.
Being British, we of course mention the weather to our host Stijepo at Apartment Love and Hope and thank him for waiting for us in the torrential conditions.
“I would be happy if this was my biggest problem!” he exclaims, several times – a reference to being caught up in the 1991 Siege of Dubrovnik with no electricity or water and weeks of bombardment by Serbia/Montenegro. After that, we pretty much shut up about the weather and the price of bread.
Once the storm clears, it is indeed truly lovely inside the Unesco World Heritage Site of Dubrovnik, so clean. I mean, really clean. (Well, all that tourist money has to go somewhere I guess.) We enter it at sunset so that we can immediately leave it, as Stijepo has sent us for a sunset drink at Buza, a well-known drinking hole on the rocks outside the wall. Pete nearly chokes on his £6 GOT-priced Leffe but it’s the view we are paying for and a ringside seat for sunset in the Pearl of the Adriatic.
Day 13: Lokrum Island
Stijepo recommended this nearby island as a lovely spot for a picnic, with botanic gardens and an old fort – but, who are we kidding, we mainly go because he told us there were loads of friendly rabbits roaming freely about there. There are. Here is a bun the size of a banana…
… and also an array of randy peacocks parading and trying to win over peahens to the point of fighting.
It’s quite something to watch baby bunnies hopping around giant prickly aloe vera succulents while peacocks shimmer and shake erect feathers next to the deep blue Adriatic. Only unicorns could have topped off the fairytale if anyone has Photoshop skills to add one here…
Day 14: Dubrovnik
We check the cruise ship timetable and head into the Old Town as the passengers leave. After a picnic on ‘the outside’ wall by the harbour, we randomly bump into Hannah and Myk who, being super-speedy Americans, have caught up with us despite leaving Belgrade four days later. Their Podgorica train journey, taken on May Day weekend and packed with students heading back to Montenegro, makes ours sound a Four Yorkshiremen sketch – luxury. The next day Mark from the Belgrade apartment will fly in as we fly out. More travel connections in time.
We buy a Ferrero Rocher-flavoured ice cream from Stijepo’s recommended childhood ice cream parlour Dolce Vita and sit once more outside the walls, on a tiny beach that has the most beach glass I have ever scavenged in my life. You know when you start a collection and become enslaved? Well, mine is a worldwide beach glass collection and this tiny beach just tripled it – as well as producing two rare pieces in blue.
Pete and I discuss biting the tourist bullet and paying nearly £40 to walk the 2km city walls but it comes down to this on our last day – we can either walk or eat. So we eat: a tuna pasta and beer and wine and chocolate feast on our Love and Hope balcony overlooking beautiful Dubrovnik.
A male voice choir carries up the steep hillside from Banye Beach as the sunset does its glorious hazy coloured spectacle thing, and we have a little last-night-of-the-holiday dance on the terrace because we’re married now and it’s legal.
I may not be as enamoured of travelling as I used to be, and I can’t wait to see our own little floppy-eared dudes and the rest of the human-eared family, but I sure could do with a little bit more blue sky, sea and sunshine in my UK life to be happy.
Perhaps everything is better in Croatia after all.
</The end of the Balkan blogging beast. Thank you for reading. Hope you enjoyed it. Other blog posts are available. >
A bit of perspective arrives overnight and my appetite comes back for a full English breakfast out on the Hotel Hemera’s street terrace. No generic continental breakfast buffet here.
We have one hour to look around Podgorica’s sights – a bridge, a river, a statue of a Russian rock star – before we have to get to the bus station. Our local street of bars and cafes, which closed around 3.30am last night, are all open and packed with people by 11am.
Our bus to the Bay of Kotor takes a 2.5-hours and the journey is a pretty one with snow-capped mountains, Lake Skadar in the distance and dizzying views down to Budva and Sveti Stefan beach resorts. We arrive into Kotor into an apartment overlooking the jade green bay and the Old Town, and sit on the terrace. We have a whole three days here.
One week into the trip, the holiday feels as if it about to begin.
Day 10: Muo, Perast
It’s 24 degrees and we are wearing shorts and sun cream and sun hats. This has been the hardest trip to pack for: just a week ago I was up in the snow-covered Alps. We spend almost all day at ‘home’ in our Muo apartment, lounging and reading and writing and admiring the fjord-like Bay of Kotor and the Unesco Heritage Site of Kotor with its walled, almost triangular Stari Grad (old town).
We are about to leave the apartment when Pete gets the news that his Arts Council England grant application has been successful, which means he will have his first solo exhibition this autumn at Birmingham Open Media. We celebrate by hopping a one-euro 13km bus ride to Perast, a small Venetian-style village further up the bay, for an afternoon beer and sandwiches by the waterside.
A cruise ship enters the bay on its way down to Kotor, ready to disgorge several thousand people into its tiny port. We have learnt to timetable around them and I’m relieved to be in quiet Perast, wandering its tiny alleyways and stone staircases, while Pete 3D-scans a church square bust. Such is our life. We often enjoy our own little worlds, like our rabbits, each somewhere in the vicinity of the other.
Day 11: Kotor
No cruise ships today so Kotor Stari Grad is clear and we can explore at our leisure.
In truth I am ready to go home; yet when I am home I dream of being away. Both realities are perhaps tainted by a rose-tinted perception of reality.
Yesterday I came across another younger backpacking Brummie called Fiona on YouTube who is travelling for three years (as I did at the end of the 90s). I think of her at the future version of my past self – except she is vlogging her travels, advice, inspiration and reassurance. I simultaneously I admire her and think that I can’t go back in time to my own days cross-crossing Asia. I don’t envy the pressure she is under having to serve up daily content to an audience of followers. I remember how great it all was but now find myself annoyed by the narcissistic, self-focused, singular, young backpacker’s viewpoint. And yet… so fascinating and familiar that I think I must hate myself.
Solo travelling felt (still feels) like such an achievement for me, a shy Brummie who fell surprisingly in love with solo travelling as a teenager on a US road trip, enough to later hit the backpack trail to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, South-East Asia, Australia, New Zealand…
Travelling opened up my eyes to new lands, people, religion, cultures, perspectives, politics, ways to live, ways to die, ways to think. I even learned the value of my own country when I had the chance to leave it permanently. And later I began to change how I moved through the world, more aware of the impact of travel and tourism, and my own privilege involved in traversing someone else’s land. Travelling humbled me in many ways.
So the other Fiona, the one I found myself watching dispense travel wisdom on YouTube, arrived as an echo from another time and place. She reminded me that I am no longer her and can’t go back to that youthful time and place. That is her present, my past. I am now a traveller who has to some extent settled down. And that makes me question who am I without it? Is there such as thing as being a ‘post-traveller’? How do I travel now, if at all?
Other Fiona is asking for volunteer vloggers to expand her coverage and I’m tempted to offer as Future Fiona – a potential talking futurehead from two decades on. Or just leave her to get on with it. She’ll figure it out.
Meanwhile, back in the present, I am caught in another time travel loop of see my own future 24 hours ahead. I have connected with a friend’s Instagram friend who was in Belgrade, took the train to Podgorica, and arrived in Kotor a day before us. Each day I check her Instagram feed to see where she has gone, before posting variations of her photos a day later. She is currently staying across the bay in Dobrota and that we have probably taken a shot of each other’s apartment. I wave and wonder if she is waving back. From this yester-stream I know we will be climbing to the Kotor Fort and I find it comforting to folllow in a future traveller’s footsteps, at least until the near connections across multiple dimensions via the internet start to melt my brain, for behind us, Hannah and Myk from our Belgrade dinner, will be following us a few days behind.
Climbing the 13oo or so feet up cliffside steps to the Fort is painfully slow but we press on despite the jellylegs and panting for breath. I’m nearly 50, losing my balance and not the fittest but I did it. I got all the way to the top, where the mountain goats frolic and the kids graffiti and the soda sellers sits. I can still do it. I feel good.
At dinner, we toast scaling the beautiful mountains of Montenegro, the success of Pete’s funding and the longevity of us – eight years together, coming up to three married. Achievements.
Tomorrow we cross our final border and my eighth country of the tour, into Croatia. As with all journeys, it feels as if it is ending before it has ended.
Goodbye Belgrade – we head for the train station and get in the long queue to catch our replacement bus service.
The trains have got progressively shitter as I’ve gone further east and, when we finally reach it, this one is the worst yet. There is no dining car or even a coffee bar, the windows are graffitied some to the point of obliterating any view, and second class is both dirty and stewing warm. To be fair, the 10-hour journey costs just over €20, or around 40p an hour, which is a bargain even by Brummie standards.
The reason we are doing this is that the journey is a seat61.com top pick – “one of Europe’s most spectacular train rides” – as it will take us up into the mountains of Montenegro, in and out of around 400+ tunnels, across 200+ bridges and over Europe’s highest viaduct before descending into the capital Podgorica.
Thanks to Mr Popovic we know the train has been declassified so we quickly shift to first class, which is slightly nicer with reclining seats and a clear window. We settle down to pass the time, me looking, Pete reading.
We are sharing our old-school six-seat carriage with a guy who looks like a sexy hitman, and things are pleasantly quiet until three burly old Serb fishermen enter. Their conversation doesn’t pause for several hours. I have no idea what they are saying and very soon want Sexy Hitman to finish them off. Serbian should be a lovely language to listen to with its soft shmuzhy consonants and zhuszhes and itzas but any language spoken relentlessly is a form of travel torture. We three quiet imprisoned passengers all resort to headphones. Too late, local touts board the train selling beer and soda and an alternative option for escape.
The busy carriages and few remaining functioning toilets hum with the smell of sweat and sewage. Smoke fills the corridors and pervades the carriages. The air is oppressive and I find myself counting down the hours, not to Podgorica but to smelling fresh air again. But, of course, there are the dual border checks and the train randomly stops for nearly an hour en route and so we are once again running late. This is how a 300-mile journey takes 11 hours.
Fortunately, the general discomfort is more than outdone by the fact that we are travelling through a green version of the Alps, and even here the train climbs high enough to venture above the snow line.
I spend the last hour out in the corridor, staring far down into the valley at tiny moving cars a thousand metres below and muttering ‘inconceivable’ and ‘unbelievable’ at how the hell this crappy commuter train got up here and wondering if we’ll essentially be riding a rollercoaster down into the valley.
We arrive into Podgorica in darkness. Taxi touts swarm around, crossing the tracks to chase down business. We follow the hotel’s instructions to look for Halo or Red cab companies and soon we are enjoying our splash-out boutique hotel (£68 for two inc full breakfast), with the best monsoon shower and an unexpected mirrored ceiling. I didn’t see that in the reviews.
The joys of comfort and cleanliness and fresh air last only 30 minutes before I realise my small purse with my currency and Visa card in is missing, possibly lost in the back of the cab or back on the train as I packed up. After a long day I feel overwhelmed with emotions and having to deal with stopping all the credit cards. I want to kick myself for being so lax.
After all the cancelling is done, we go out for French fries and then a beer in Bar Berlin over the road to unwind, listen to music and not talk.
I am besieged by thoughts that I am a much less robust traveller than I think. I contemplate all that work planning the trip, organising the different currencies, checking Google Streetview, making a spreadsheet – and how I’ve just gone and fucked it up.