Catching the dawn

Civil dawn at Cofton Park this morning.

The great thing about winter is that you can actually get up at a reasonable hour to catch the dawn and see in the sunrise. When I first thought of doing this last year, it was in June and there was just no way I was going to get up at 4am.

Of course, what you want is the awesome sunset effect but in reverse: the bit where the skies glow red-gold before the sun actually rises. This, I learned after a bit of Duckduckgo research, is called the 'civil twilight' or 'civil dawn'– when the sun is six degrees below the horizon, starting to light up the higher skies and giving enough light to see by. In Birmingham, UK, at 52 degrees north, in October, this starts around 35 minutes before sunrise. This is also normally the time I reach for my sleeping mask.

By the way, for sunrise nerds, civil dawn follows two other phases of pre-dawn twilight:

  • astronomical twilight – 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon, still dark but with the fainter stars starting to blink out
  • nautical twilight – 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon, with some light right on the horizon and main stars still visible enough to navigate by.

This morning, we enjoyed all three twilights and a waning gibbous moon (thanks Matthew, aged 3). I'd set up a 'Ladies of the Sunrise' message group and three of us, who were prepared to check the morning skies, called it 'go' at 6.30am.

We set out at 6.40am in astronomical darkness and drove along the beautifully empty, rain-wetted, neon-reflective streets of Stirchley, Kings Norton and Longbridge. Chiquitita by Abba was on the radio, singing "But the sun is still in the sky and shining above you – shining, shining, shining".

I think I see Jonathan Livingston Seagull..

We pulled up at our chosen sunrise viewing spot, Cofton Park – at 7am as nautical twilight ended, and headed up the hill. Already a number of dogwalkers were there ahead of us. We laid out a cheery fleecy picnic mat on a wet bench, handed out hot water bottles and gloves, drank tea and hot chocolate from flasks, and cut up cinnamon and cardamom or chocolate buns for breakfast.

We watched civil twilight unfold – the brightest of the three twilights – with hints of orange in the purple-grey sky. Clouds drifted across the sky, hill fog threatening and clear blue sky momentarily tantalising. A flock of gulls swirled around the park, low-flying then marching en masse along the grass. The young dogs chased them, the older ones knew better. I stood up and my borrowed hot water bottle fell in the mud.

The sun rose at 7.39am somewhere beyond the hilly horizon.

Spot the gothic Ladies of the Sunrise, far right.

We decided to head to Beacon Hill, a Lickey Hills viewpoint five minutes drive up the road, to see the sun come up over the city. But it was so foggy we almost lost our way back.

Still, even the thick fog had its charms, providing a mystical journey among the spruce and pine trees. Broken red-and-white toadstools lay along the path, like fairymarkers. As a bunnymom, the plentiful rabbit droppings pleased me. A dumping of multiple silver canisters depressed me. This must be what despair looks like – or is this somebody's winter fun times?

Misty treetops at Beacon Hill while the sun shone down in the valley.

Although we didn't get the perfect sunrise this time around, I enjoyed reclaiming this time and space. At some point, someone suggested feeling like witches, perhaps as if in Macbeth, three wandering dark shapes on the misty moors. I definitely felt less anxious and more dominant in the environment for being in the company of two other women. Would I do this solo? Maybe, now I've done it once. As much as the park sunrise was the reason for getting up early, it was the fogbound summit of Beacon Hill that cast the magic spell for doing it again.

Dude, where's the car park?

There will be a few more chances to catch the dawn/pre-sunrise before the clocks go back, and again around the Solstice in December. There have to be some good things about winter and the chance of seeing the sunrise is one of them.

Bemused modern witch.

Independent toes

Independent toes goalI discovered the importance of having independent toes (the ability to flex individual toes on command) after reading Dynamic Ageing by Katy Bowman. Katy is a biomechanist and movement teacher and her book is co-written with four women over the age of 75 – although really it's aimed at anyone sedentary.

Mobilising the feet improves both balance and basic movement. After all, no one wants to end up with the old person shuffle and yet it happens to the best of us: that hunched over, stare at your feet, short step, pavement scuffing walk.

It is the fear of falling that often leads to older people to adopt this type of restricted, unnatural movement. Ironically, it also makes it more likely they will lose balance, says Katy. Regaining command over one's toes is a real confidence builder because it improves strength, mobility and biomechanics.

But … have you ever tried to flex individual toes on command? It is no easy feat (sorry).

Follow the instructions and the dream of independent toes could be yours, promised Katy. The exercises included rolling your feet over a cylinder (I used an empty pepper pot) to wake up the nerve endings so that your brain and toes can actually start talking again. Another involved a 'handshake' with your toes, interlocking fingers between each one to encourage their future separation. It's amazing that something so small could change your whole life one day.

I did the exercises for a few weeks as part of my 2019 goals list. Having been prescribed orthotics several years ago, I'm basically interested in anything that will keep me walking and mobile. For years I worked in a sedentary screen-based job for 40 hours a week so I've got a lot of reversing to do.

It was both amusing and disturbing to stand upright, look at my toes and try to raise each one off the floor – the big toes understood and lifted up. Certain other naughty toes totally refused to move a millimetre let along an inch.

In the end I got the second  and fifth toes also lifting slightly. The third toe moved but never without the second one. And the fourth one now twitches slightly so at least it is a stubborn mule that is listening.

It's now September and I've pretty much given up I have to admit. But I haven't lost the movement I gained and I have done a lot of walking this year so it's all good.

Update: Independent toes pt 2 – the video!

And I still like shaking hands/feet with my fingers/toes. Try it! It is strangely pleasant. Just me?

toe handshake
How do you do?

Inadvertently climbing a mountain – photo essay

patting the wrong mountain peak.
Also inadvertently patting the wrong mountain peak.

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?

Lambing season on Cader Idris.
Lambing season on Cader Idris.

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.

Exploring the gorge.
Exploring the gorge and waterfall, and pondering life.

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.

Rising slowly above the treeline on the Minffordd Path.
Rising slowly above the treeline on the Minffordd Path.

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.)

Mach Bwlch
Looking for jets at Mach Bwlch.

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 terrain evened out eventually
After steep woodland gorge steps, the terrain evened out.

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.

Llyn Cau lake at last.
Llyn Cau lake at last. Spot the tourist, sorry, I mean pioneering solo female adventurer.

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.

Selfie - In front of Cader Idris summit, or not. Hard to tell.
In front of Cader Idris summit, or not. Hard to tell.

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.

Stoney toe-trippers.
Stoney toe-trippers on the descent.

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.

Red face, back at base.
Hot! Red face, back at base.

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.'

Afternoon tea.
Afternoon tea? Don't mind if I do.

Hire/commission me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com