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Loving nature and nurturing love

Getting away on a “mini break” can be an absolute relationship saver. No one feels truly connected to their partner while discussing taxes, Brexit or the fact that fridge needs cleaning out. But this is also true of our friendships. Every once in a while we need to do something in the wilderness with people who are important to us. To experience something special and unique together.

Last week I started working as an adhoc, outdoor instructor. I felt like a little bit of a fraud, given that even though I have run numerous obstacle races and triathlons, and even though I seem to have amounted a ridiculous amount of activity qualifications (Scuba diving, sailing, Forest school, outdoor first aid) I had not really “coached” anyone else before. I have an exceptionally high pain threshold (Childbirth was my proof) and I don’t really feel the cold. I am an animal when it comes to mud and water, I will do literally anything. During one particular race, we had to go through barbed wire and underwater obstacles. But encouraging others to do these nutty things, is a whole different matter.

The lovely guy in charge put me on a technical and fairly high risk obstacle. In my head I completed a “dynamic” risk assessment: Drowning, concussion, shock, heart attack. The weather was pretty horrid and us instructors were all clad in our best wet weather gear.

At one point, the man who runs the event said “last year I had four squaddies manning this one. They literally stood in the water and shouted at people till they did it.” Well, that’s totally not my style, I thought. Over the walkie talkie I could hear someone requesting an urgent medic on another stage. I tried to stay focused on my task. I could hear that a group of lady medics in matching black tee shirts were going round. Each stage reported their arrival. When they finally got to me, they felt like old friends.

“You can definitely do this!” I said to them. “Over the big, under the small.” They looked at me, slightly broken and said “What?!?!? put out heads right under?”

“You have come this far. You are going to be so proud when you have completed this. I am right here if you need me. “

“I wish I could take a photo, one lady said.”

“I will take a photo” I said, like an idiot, realising that I did not know them to send it their way.

“Find me on facebook.” She said. So I took this brilliant picture.

Bristol Dental Specialists

To the Bristol Dental Specialists: I salute you. Keep taking risks, challenging yourselves and nurturing the sisterhood! You guys were fab!

The rest of my week was spent with my family in the forest of Dean, seeking new places to explore. We walked through cascading golden leaves, stomped through gushing streams and walked up steep old drover lanes. Time spent together in nature is never time wasted. And we even found a hedgehog! Something I have not seen (even as road kill) for 25 years. My hubby and I were convinced the son had found a dead one, but no, there he was just roaming around. It felt like we had found a fairy or a unicorn, the stuff of magic.

And if the great British weather is a bit inclement, well, just make sure you end the day in one of our bloody brilliant pubs. A glass of wine and a log fire will surely cure all ills in the world. Chin, chin.

Re-wilding a woman

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A micro adventure is a journey you go on which is less than two hours from home, allows you to explore somewhere new and bring you joy. These three things are the core of my new career and it is about reconnecting people to nature. The other two things I feel passionately about are fuelling your body with food that has soul and building communities.

This week I took my first group of women on the first “wild women escape”. The idea of these events is to get women to have some time out of their busy and normally stressful lives and reconnect with an inspiring and often unknown stunning location. This trip was all about waterfalls, wild swimming and walking. I prepared 3 lobsters from my local fish mongers, packed two bottles of prosecco and a range of tasty tapas foods for the arrival. I had my 6 first volunteers to try out my business idea and was nervous as hell.

The concept was quite simple. I plan, drive, lead a walk, cook food and take you home again. You can just relax, enjoy the experience, eat the food make some new friends and talk, walk and laugh. On the way home, I am not going to be offended if you sleep on the drive home, having exerted yourself from the five mile hike and the wilds swim to the waterfall.

I could not tell you why, but for some reason I was really anxious. The weather had been absolutely glorious in the few weeks leading up to the trip. Then, a few days before, lightening storms were forecast. I was wracked with a crisis of confidence. “No one will come.” my internal monologue was telling me. “This whole thing was a ridiculous idea. You live in the UK, you idiot, where it rains for 80% of the year. You can’t run a business which is so seasonal. It’s not going to work.” I actuality, all of the participants came! I was so eternally grateful. “You have to be braver.” I told myself after.

I lit the BBQ and smeared the halved lobsters with garlic butter. The ladies enjoyed the prosecco and olives and bread and snacks which the lobster cooked. When I brought it over to the table, it looked like a sight to behold. We feasted and chatted. One of the ladies had just got engaged, one had just announced being pregnant and the next day was my birthday. We had so much positivity to share and so much to celebrate. We were uninterrupted by impetuous children, undistracted by the pull of house chores and unencumbered by workplace to do lists.

For two and a half miles, we walked along the Eidir trail to a glorious pub bathed in dappled sunshine. The path required you to watch your feet and was moderately challenging which warmed us up and required our focus and attention. All around us was ancient woodland filled with Oak and Hazel and Beech and the river flowed by sometimes in torrents which took your breath away and sometimes in calm, rippling pools.

There are about 6 waterfalls on this walk (depending on you definition), four of which are named on the map. Each one sings a different song, each has a different character. At one point, a lady pulled some medowsweet from the bank and a fern and decorated my hair for no reason. At many points, women talked about how they would love to come back and share this lovely place with their family. Your walking partner changed along the route and we all got to make new friends.

The last waterfall is probably the most spectacular, and has a deep lagoon below. This was the place I chose for our wild swim. We had seen very few people along the paths and we were alone for a quick change into swim gear. The water was icy! But it has been well documented in recent years as to the mental health and physical benefits of cold water swimming. The usual human reaction is the yelp, scream and laugh. Two of us decided to just go for it and I am sure our laughter could be heard for miles. I have a lasting image of one lady in my mind who waded round to the far side of the waterfall with a new found friend and she stood fully under the full force of the river cascading down. The look on her face was pure unadulterated joy! I knew that she had been having a difficult time of late, and just to see her let it all go and do something magical, was a pleasure like no other. I had achieved my aim.

And so to new beginnings. Be they scary, daring, challenging and emotional. Let’s take them on together.

Where have all the women gone?

Why is adventure and outdoor activity a male dominated thing?

This week I completed my first Triathlon. I was aiming to do one before I turned 30. That then became 40. With 18 months left to go, I signed up to a short distance off road event. It seemed like a good idea back in January. I thought it would make me ring fence time for exercise. Instead, followed three months of flu followed by 2 months of excessive work load. In truth, the main motivation for having ago (with very limited training) was the fact it had cost so much. I felt guilty.

I arrived the night before and slept in my friend’s camper. The lake was beautiful and it seemed like a pleasant idea to go on a mountain bike ride the next day. Hell! The run after through the forest would be fantastic.

The next morning, the dark clouds loomed ominously over the hills and a strong head wind was going to make the paddle back “challenging.” I’d fixed a puncture on my bike the day before but it had been a ‘ghost’ puncture. No split on the valve. No thorns in the rubber. Was everyone going to laugh at my cheap paddle board and my 20 year old bike?

As we set out on the paddle boards, I felt nerves running through my veins. The leg out was not so bad. “The way back is really hard!” Called a guy. On the way back I was deafened by the wind. I paddled, steadily, only to discover I was going backwards, rather than forwards. Eventually, I ended up banked on the far shore. A speed boat pulled up, “I can tow you, but it would be game over for the race.” Nooooooooo. I screamed silently to myself. I pushed off from the shore. I would have to rapidly improve my technique. I should have looked this up on YouTube last night, I thought to myself.

You are going to have to work this out. I told myself. What no one else could hear, thanks to the wind, was me screaming and shouting to myself . “Come on! Come on!” I urged as I paddled. I was going to have to go round the perimeter of the lake. Eventually I made it back exhilarated, but I must have paddled 5k rather than 3.

Cycling is something I have always loved. But this bike ride was a beast. 15k with 300 meter of ascent. It was technical and there were plenty of opportunities to break a collar bone. Half way round I joined a group of 5 ladies with matching red tops. “You are welcome to join us.” One said. We are helping each other and we plan to cross the finish line together. Each time we passed another lady, we all yelled words of encouragement. “You can do this!” Another time a lady clapped me as I passed in the opposite direction. The men said nothing, either to each other, nor to us women.

At the finish line, I let the red vested ladies all pass in front of me, holding hands and smiling. Their families were all happy and congratulatory. I felt proud. I had not been defeated by this monumental challenge. And I felt proud to be female.

All the things I like to be tend to be “boys” pass times. My profession is dominated by men. When I did my degree, it was 10:1 men to women. The bottom layer of teaching is woman heavy. But of 15 senior leaders, only two are women. Where are all the women?

My next adventure was to take the boys sand surfing in Cornwall. I love the times we go camping. We reconnected, we laughed, we cooked together and played football and ate chocolate.

Upon my return, I opened an email from the triathlon event. Dear reader….a woman had come first place. Not me, incidentally, I had come 47th. But I was so proud of that anonymous lady. Welcome to the sisterhood. To the strong women, may we know the, may we be them, may we raise them.

Sensory stimulation for the soul

Pembrokeshire coastal path with crashing waves

Last weeks of Easter break have been incredible. I managed to squeeze 4 adventures in, and I have been able to share them with my favourite people.

Adventure #22 : pack a picnic and your toothbrushes and see where you end up.

We stayed in an unusual b&b and ate at a local pub with a kids play area and open grass. I sat inside and enjoyed the peace while the other three played fotty. We feasted on steak and lasagne and things we would never eat at home.

The beach was deserted as we went after breakfast and we enjoyed chasing the squealing gulls. At the end of the beach we found Victorian gardens abloom with carefully selected fauna to create a reason to be present on the cusp of spring.

Bridge building

The point at which we stop playing is the point at which we have lost joy in our lives.”

Syreeta

The next day of weather was terrible. I had found a new forest park to explore, but everyone else was reticent to say the least. Heldon forest park is cultivated for people , to be sure, but it has the charm and usefulness of all forestry commission sites. It is 3,500 acres of woodland just 15 minutes from Exeter. There is a really good cafe with a covered outdoor eating area and a log burner inside if the weather turns funky. We sat and drank hot chocolate while the windows turned blurry with rain. Eventually it did ease off and we stomped up the hill through majestic trees. The boys were singing and I was breathing deeply the smells the fallen rain had thrown up from the forest floor.

One of the activities we did at a Forest School training the week before was called sitting tree. You choose a spot and sit for 10 minutes. As she said it, I could feel panic rising in me. I have always suspected that I have ADHD. This would feel like 3 hours. I would immediately ‘out’ myself as a weirdo with no concentration. But an interesting thing happened. I took my shoes off and felt the grass below me. I felt the breeze on my face. I listened to multiple bird songs. I touched the different ferns around me. When the tutor finally called us back I was surprised. “How long do you think you were there for?” I was convinced it had been less than 10 minutes. “It was actually 20.”

Smells of wild garlic in spring

“How was it that I don’t have ADHD in the forest, but struggle to be in a room for 2 minutes? And how is it that my son has autism in school, but is suddenly cured at the beach?”

The world we now occupy is ever more 2 dimensional and this is getting exasperated by screen culture. On a screen you are seeing, and maybe hearing something but that is it. What we probably call naughty behaviour in children and depressed behaviour in adults could be seen as types of sensory seeking. A craving, if you like, for those parts of the brain we are not exercising. People are under the impression that over stimulation stops kids concentrating, but what if it is the other way round? Nature is a beautiful multilayered, multi dimensional feast for the mind. Interesting smells, sounds and textures are bombarding us from all directions. And are also constantly changing. We did not evolve inside four walls. We have spent hundreds of thousands of years living in and with our natural surroundings.

Perhaps the reason we all have a connection to nature because we actually feel at home and the man made buildings are actually the alien environment. Important neural connections are made by tiny babies who are touched and spoken to. Baby sensory classes are very popular because of research telling us that this is important for brain development. What if, in fact, this does not change with age?

My quest for 52 micro adventures has created in me the headspace to reconsider all of the reasons I thought I felt stressed and tired and stuck in a rut. I have been emancipated by my adventures. And dear reader, this is the most impressive part! You don’t need a shit load of money, nor time, nor permission from anyone. You could go and find a micro adventure right now.