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.

A purple haze of bluebells at Clent Hills

English bluebells

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.

Uffmoor Wood, Clent Bluebells

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.

Wild garlic in 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.

Tree near St Kenelm's Church

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.

Walton Hill pano

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.

Clent bluebell walk

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.

Clent Hills bluebells

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.

There are two more guided bluebell walks at Clent on Saturday 4th and Wednesday 8th May (info/booking here). Bluebell info/National Trust: 6 things you might not know about bluebells

Country to city solo walk – North Worcestershire to West Midlands

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?

Alvechurch marina
Alvechurch marina

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.

Alvechurch to Stirchley walk
Similar route – but via canals on the first stretch from Alvechurch

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.

Worcester Birmingham Canal

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.

Narrowboat near Bittell Reservoir

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.

Wast Hills Tunnel – south entrance.

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.

North Worcestershire Path.

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!).

Observatory
Birmingham University Observatory

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.

The bridge at Seals Green

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.

Hawkesley edgelands

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.

Lush graffiti

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.

Seconds from a cuppa