Prehistoric Britain…

Tribes. Tribal convictions was where the conversation turned slightly sour. Declaring to an ex-squady (who has always voted Tory, who has always pledged allegiance to the Queen and who would always have voted for Brexit), that you didn’t identify yourself as being British was never going to go down too well.

We conversed what “tribes” we felt we belonged to, radiating from the self outwards. For me, the most important tribe is my immediate family, my wife, sons and daughter (even my faithful old pooch). Nothing is more important than that tribe and nothing will ever come close.

As one goes further afield, the extended family (siblings, parents) as well as close friends come next, more geography dispersed and with that a weaker bond. Outside of that, it is our streets, avenues, villages, towns, cities, counties, countries, continents, planet, solar system, galaxy and the universe that make up the outer laters of our tribal onion and with that a lessening connection as we move away from the core and what is most important.

True bonds have strong metaphysical connections, spiritual if you will. The bond with my immediate family is strong.

The bond with my extended family is not strong (as this site has described over the years) although the recent reconnection with my sister is starting to repair what was broken for many years.

The bond with my close friends remains a constant, with quality not quantity reigning supreme.

The bond with my neighbours is divided, some super strong, some super strained (and Covid has widened that gap even further).

The bond with my community solid, I’ve always admired the Scouse way, never one to shy away from a debate, never one to take things lying down, always one to take it on the chin and fight back (the political establishments don’t stand for us and we stand strong and proud to our core values and principles, a real spirit of togetherness).

The bond with my nation is broken, feeling totally disconnected from Westminster, from the population at large (due to recent election and referendum results).

The bond with my continent is still there just, the love of mainland Europe and friends I’ve met and kept in touch with over the years is still in tact (and will be after we officially disconnect at the end of the year).

As for my planet, never has the population of the Earth been so divided as it is now, each nation state doing their own thing, preserving invisible borders and protecting “their” resources within non-material lines, not caring about the whole, only their part, infecting every corner of the world with the promotion of self, destroying our “little blue dot” in the process.

The challenge my bimbling comrade gave me was an honest one. Politics aside, why did I have no connection with Britain. As we hiked over the hills of Northumbria, I pondered this question as we gazed upon the historical sites and came to the conclusion that I had no real idea about the history of Britain, beyond what TV had taught me over the years (Monty Python mostly).

What did the early landscape of Britain look like and how did it become an island? How did the inhabitants of Britain evolve over time and how did they organise themselves into tribes and communities, and perhaps the most intriguing question of all, what made them British?

Maybe after finding out all of those facts would I be able to make a more informed judgement on whether I identified with being British or not.

So without going too far down the rabbit hole and borrowing some facts primarily from Wikipedia ( I say borrowing, its more like stealing really – what all Scousers do apparently, its in our DNA according to some!), I uncovered the following timeline, with a particular focus on the area where I live now, Wirral.

Palaeolithic (Stone) Age

Clearly there is no real way to validate the true timeline of a period that dates back almost one million years, but the collective understanding on how things evolved in the Britain are based on population migration from the continental mass of Europe (you heard it right Brexiteers, we are all immigrants!), as well as the geo-morphological aspect due to several ice ages and tectonic movements.

Our first hominin ancestors lived in Britain around 900,000 BCE, and is presumed to be Homo Antecessor, a few stages and several million years after the monkey-to-man thing happened (curse you black monolith!). These folks were amongst the first Hunter-Gatherers and we assume this via various Stone Age tools and animal bones which were found in Happisburgh (in Norfolk) and carbon dated to that period.

The map of Britain as you would expect looks very different one million years ago compared today, with Britain being a large peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides, much like a Wirral on steroids.

Between 700,000 and 500,000 BCE, Homo Antecessor was replaced by Homo Heidelbergensis, whose brains were significantly larger than that of its predecessor, and with that extra capacity, expanded its intelligence and thought processes. Historic finds around this time have uncovered early flint tools (Pakefield, Suffolk) and with flint comes fire, the catalyst for real advancement of the species.

At the end of that era, the first mention of glaciation creeps into the history books, and Britain is almost completely under ice, thus driving our early human ancestors back south and east to the warmer climates of Europe.

Around 450,00 BCE, as luck would have it (for the Brexiteers), the land-bridge that connected Britain to France (Weald-Artois Anticline) was cut for the first time (small at first), creating the English Channel (though I suspect La Manche was more of a La Rivière at the time).

400,000 BCE saw the first Neanderthals set foot in Blighty, and Swanscombe Man was recovered from a bog in Kent, along with several hand axes, mammoth teeth and jaw bones. Early indications were that these ancestors spent most of the time in the south west of England, not venturing too far north due to densely populated woodlands making hunting more difficult, and less habitable conditions (temperatures mostly and the proximity to escape when the inevitable ice flows came back.)

And that is exactly what happened for the next few hundred thousand years, ice flows in, Neanderthal flows out, that was until 125,000 BCE when the rising sea levels completely cut of Britain from Europe (much to the rejoicing of Tommy Robinson’s Neanderthal forefathers).

It was around 45,000 BCE when the first evidence of Homo Sapiens was found, as my last post stated in Kents Cavern in Devon and it was this period that the Neanderthals were completely driven out of Britain by the new kids on the block, never to return and eventually die out altogether only five millennium later..

Several more periods of glaciation took place, again driving “humans” (as they are now known) back to Europe until 11,700 BCE when the Holocene warming begins, melting huge volumes of ice, rising the sea levels and starting to hint at Britain that it may not be a peninsula for much longer.

Up to this point, humans lived freely across the land in tribes, no invisible borders existing, free to roam from country to country in search of sustenance and security within nomadic tribes. All that was about to change however with the dawning of the post-fire evolutionary catalyst, the agricultural revolution.

Mesolithic Age

With things warming up nicely in Britain around 9,500 BCE, our ancestors began to migrate north and with that form structures to live, a good example of early settlements were found near the Vale of Pickering in Yorkshire (Star Carr) and although nothing much exists there today, finds included the remnants of deer (headdresses presumably used as either hunting aides or ritual adornments), boar, bear and wolf, as well as some rarer finds like amber, hematite and unsmelted iron pyrite object d’art used as prehistoric Pandora (jewellery).

Post holes and evidence of early hearths dot the landscape here and reveal what could be one of the first real settlements on mainland Britain, and it is shortly after this period where the Wirral gets its first proper mention in the history books.

Excavations in Greasby (more recently signposted as Gravesberie, a nod to its ancient past), revealed the exact same footprint as found in Star Carr 800 years earlier, uncovering flint tools, signs of stake holes and a hearth used by a hunter-gatherer community., and other evidence from around the same period has been found in New Brighton, where I live with my own tribe today.

As most of us know, East Anglia and vast parts of the Netherlands are still below sea level today, but many may not know (until recently myself included), that until around 6,200 BCE, the two were connected by marshlands known as Doggerland.

Around this time, a great ice sheet in western Norway side off into the North Sea causing a mega tsunami which flooded the entire area, and with the associated sea level rise cut Britain off from the continental land mass completely, never to return. Little did I know that we have only been an island for just over 8,000 years.

At this point, the agricultural revolution had been spreading like wildfire from its origins in the Middle East (Jericho and Aleppo being the first known structured civilisations to pop into existence), and around 6,000 BCE, the Isle of Wight off the south coast of Britain gave birth to wheat cultivation.

Neolithic Age

So it was around 4,000 BCE that saw a marked shift from hunter-gatherer tribes to organised collectives in Britain, with humans now able to create and store food for the first time, and with it the advent of rules, regulations, hierarchies, ownership, greed and conflict (not an exhaustive list by any means).

To date, the most impressive nod to the Neolithic movement can be found on Orkney, an island off the north coast of Scotland. Skara Brae is a prehistotic village made out of stone around 3,000 BCE. Cut deep into the landscape and with the exception of the roofs which would have been thatched, stands strong today, with fully formed semi-subterranean houses giving real insights into how we used to live during that time and not too dissimilar to how we construct our homes today, with central living spaces, cooking areas and sleeping quarters all close to heat sources when the weather turns gnarly.

Britain wouldn’t be Britain without a good henge, and it was around this time when thoughts turn to the sky for the first time. Obviously the most famous of the henges (Stonehenge) began its construction around this time, but it wasn’t the the only one (I’m sure Strawhenge and Woodhenge were early iterations of this, only for a big bad wolf to go blow them down), with hundreds of these ancient sites still dotted around the landscape today.

It was clear that henges were constructed for a few reasons. Firstly, as a place to bury the dead. Excavations at most sites reveal this, with buried remains found at various points across the sites, our Neolithic graveyards. Secondly, as a monument or a place of worship. To me it is no coincidence that all henges are circular, a nod to the sun. Typically henges and barrows (burial mounds) are aligned to both the summer and winter solstices when the sun is at its highest and lowest points in the sky, signalling death and rebirth, with new life and new hope around the 25th December when the sun (or should I say son) which aligns to the northern stars (forming a crucifix would you believe) starts its ascent.

Clearly this was the first signs of thinking beyond tribes and that there was something more to the physical life as they knew it. The ancient druids of Britain clearly recognised the importance of the cosmic bodies and the wider Universe and as such erected such monuments, creating rituals and sacrifices by way of appeasing “the maker”.

Society was starting to mature at this point in Britain and settlements far and wide were springing up, again around the abundance of natural resources and sources of food, and at this point the tea-cup bearers of Europe (the Beaker People) crossed the English Channel and settled in, bringing with them new technologies and of course “heavy metal”.

Bronze / Iron Ages

It was around 1,800 BCE that bronze and iron working took off in Britain, with ores being excavated and smelted from various quarries across the land, rendering stone and flint tools obsolete, and with that added durability came an increase in crop production and an uplift in the standard of living, for some at least.

In terms of a class system, it was around this time that the haves and have nots were created in Britain. Those who claimed the ownership of the land became the masters of others and as the land was carved up, so the invisible lines were drawn up on ancient parchments so that villages became towns, towns became cities, cites became counties and counties became countries, carving out Britain into the three component parts we know today (England, Scotland and Wales), owned by the few and worked by the many (not much has changed since then).

As borders were created, so were barricades and strongholds, and with that the increase in Iron Age hillforts to protect the land owners and what was “rightfully theirs”.

Whilst we don’t have many prehistoric reminders on the Wirral, a short journey over the border to Wales gives us a taste of what life was like back then. Nestled on top of many of the Moels (hillocks) in North Wales are the shapes and ruins of Iron Age hillforts, a particularly frequent stomping ground for my family, neighbour and I, with Moel Arthur being a particularly impressive site.

Coming to the end of prehistoric Britain and before the Romans came to rape and pillage our fertile lands, Wirral was inhabited by a Celtic tribe known as the Cornovii and artefacts discovered in Meols (on the north coast) suggests that it was an important port from around 500 BCE, with traders coming from France and the Mediterranean to exchange minerals and rich ores mined from North Wales and Cheshire for foreign goods, setting up the first sea-faring trade routes in the area.

What did the Romans ever do for us.

What happens next will be the subject of more research and a future post, taking us up to the modern day, with Romans, Vikings, Angles, Normans, Saxons and likely more marauders not yet known, all scrapping for a piece of Britain’s green and pleasant lands, a real- life game of Risk or Age of Empires.

So with all of that knowledge committed to both my brain and cyberspace and reflecting on the original challenge, has a foray into the past given me a better insight into the history of Britain, of course it has. Has it made me any more British than at the start of my journey, no not really.

What we now know is that until 6,000 years ago, we were physically a part of Europe and now we are both physically and metaphysically not which is a real shame.

That said, I do feel a spiritual connection to certain places in Britain, none more so than the aforementioned Stonehenge but even more so on top of Glastonbury Tor, for me the most magical place on Earth, acting as it were as a nexus point to several ley lines that convene at the hills top. The druids knew it and that esoteric knowledge has been passed down to non-materialists and panpsychists ever since.

The energy of that place is unlike anything I’ve experienced, and tapping into into makes one realise that there is so much more to life than being British, being “Universalish” is something that we all should aspire to be, maybe then we can truly evolve, choosing lover over fear, as one…

The Road Less Traveled (Part 2)…

A quick check on the pedometer and kilometremeter from the night before revealed thirty one thousand steps stepped, twenty six thousand metres walked and one hundred and nine flights of stairs climbed.

All things considered, besides a few hotspots on our feet and dehydrated calves, we were both in fine shape for another bimble, knowing the stats would likely pale into insignificance when compared to the day before (and they did).

Our plan was to hit the third English Heritage site hard and take a walk around the small village of Chollerford, following the River Tyne downstream, both officially walled out from the day befores efforts.

We filled up our water packs once again and headed off to Heddon-On-The-Wall for a spot of breakfast in The Three Tuns public house, a full English breakfast (veggie option for me) setting out our stall for the days calorie burn.

Sadly, once again the establishment along with all others we could find in the area were all closed, again due to the Covid opening hour restrictions, so feeling a little despondent we headed back to Chollerford, parked the car at Chester’s Fort and walked back to the village for an early morning brew at The Riverside tea room before we took in all that the site had to offer.

With strong black coffee quoffed and caffeine surging through the bloodstream, we took the short walk back to the fort, stopping off briefly to pet a bouncing golden retriever, so full of life and energy, easily enough to raise our spirits of the breakfast that never was.

As if by some divine influence, we soon passed a copse of blackberries bushes and took a hand full, munching the sweet fruits in time to the sound of our own footsteps.

Once inside the fort, it was apparent from the outset that this site (for me at least) was the better one of the three. The exposed brickwork foundations still very much in tact which gave more clarity as to what each building’s function was.

By far the most impressive of constructs were the drainage systems, central heating systems and especially the almost intact bath house.

Some think that central heating systems are a relatively new concept, but in the days before gas fired boilers and radiators, the Romans would heat up stones and place them in cavities under the floors to heat the rooms. Genius.

To think they had highly effective baths, saunas and steam rooms over two thousand years ago is almost unfathomable, almost as unfathomable as to where ancient civilisations obtained such knowledge in the first place.

So much has happened on Earth in such a small time period (since the last ice age which ended 12,000 years ago in Britain according to wiki), it’s not wholly unreasonable to conclude that some of the more “out there” theories of panpsychism or the esoteric akashic records (eternally existing streams of consciousness and information) may hold they key to our historical advancement as a species.

Sadly, the bridge that spanned the River Tyne at Chester’s Fort is no more, but the ruins of the towers that sat strongly either side still remains to this day. As we peered across the river, we saw a fisherman, arcing his fly line beautifully into the crisp morning air, nestling sweetly on the surface of the fast flowing water, catching what was most likely a trout. Nothing quite like fresh fish for Sunday lunch, from riverbank to plate in less than two hours.

I came across a small shard of loose stone which was cut squarely so to form the shape of a wonky pyramid. I’d like to think it was cut by the hand of a Roman soldier two millennia ago so popped it in my pocket as a free keepsake (something I’ve regularly done over the years from mountains I’ve hiked or climbed).

After our tour of the site was complete, we headed back into Chollerford to take our river ramble on the opposite side to the fort, and stopped a while to talk to some friendly locals out walking their dog, who told us to keep an eye out for Biggus Dickus.

No it wasn’t the grave of Graham Chapman (as mentioned in Part 1), but a rather large Roman phallus carved into the stone for all eternity.

As we sat and rested, the deviant in me unpacked the drone and took it for a flight across the wall and inside the ruined bridge tower, followed by a swift flight over the river and around the fort, albeit from a significant height. Technically there were no signs on display that one could not fly a drone over the site, but I took the executive decision anyway to do it regardless, feeling the thrill of a would-be archaeologist as the aerial shot revealed the full extent of site in all of its glory.

The strong wind alert started to alarm so the flight was ended more quickly than I would have liked, but nonetheless the final output was worth the risk.

Feeling happy that we had done the area justice, we headed back to base camp for our Sunday roast at the Twice Brewed public house (vegetable nut roast for me), which was washed down with two planks of their finest draft ales.

With three third of a pint glasses on each plank, we tasted all six ales on offer, ranking them from best to worst as one does, the last glass staying full to the brim after we both agreed that it tasted like the waste water from a vase.

All that remained was the two hundred mile drive back home, which was thankfully both swift and uneventful.

We are already thinking of the full seventy three mile walk for next year, when hopefully tea rooms and public houses resume normal service and pre-booking can be resigned to the annals of history. The good folks of Northumbria are fabulously warm and welcoming people, very friendly with a dry wit and humour not too dissimilar from that of my birth city of Liverpool.

A great trip full of fond memories already, and with it a gentle reminder to all that beyond the wall of chaos, there is a calm out there, you just need to disconnect and look for it.

The Road Less Traveled (Part 1)…

“Apart from better sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, a freshwater system, baths and public order, what have the Romans ever done for us?”…

An all too brief sojourn to the North of England last weekend revealed a great many things to me. Firstly, how unfit I am. Secondly, what a truly regimented and technically advanced bunch of folks the Romans were and finally how little I know about Britain before the BC/AD switch over (when one had to get a new bloody watch – thanks Jesus!).

As mentioned in previous posts, I feel like my eventual journey to a life off-grid (when I retire at fifty five which is one thousand, four hundred and eighty two working days from now) has started in earnest. I have (with the exception of the ego-less and anonymous WordPress) disconnected myself completely from the chaos all around. I have removed all apps from my phone (except this one and Spotify), ceased all current affairs programmes and daily news briefings (relinquishing my BBC TV licence in the process and using the one hundred and sixty six pounds a year more wisely), moving to a plant-based diet (with the odd fish thrown in for the essential oils) and getting back to nature (as frequently as I can) and becoming fitter, healthier and stronger (by exercising the mind, body and soul daily – via various and varied means).

My neighbour “B”, has waxed lyrical constantly over the last twelve months about the best holiday he ever had which was exactly one year ago. He and two others “walked the wall” from the aptly named Wallsend in Newcastle in the East to Carlisle in the West, a grand total of seventy three miles.

Being ex-British army, “B” is used to long trails over various terrains, and armed with a “basher” on his back, he and his comrades took the historical path following Hadrian’s Wall, a remarkable feat of engineering built by the Romans two thousand years earlier. Bedding down in woods each evening, taking in all of the breath taking scenery Northumbria had to offer and stopping off at tea rooms and ale houses on the way, it was clear his mission (which he chose to accept) left a marked imprint on him, something I wanted a slice of myself.

So last weekend, I booked a youth hostel (partly due to the potential inclement UK weather in August and the limited time we had) and headed North for a few days of bimbling, the Twice Brewed public house our nexus and convening point after a hard days trekking. 

It was clear that as soon as we got there, things were different. After dropping our bags off we took a “recky” to map out our routes for the next couple of days and after we had done that, an evening meal and a few local ales would send us off to sleep after a long week in work for the both of us. Sadly, one is never too far away from the chaos and new order of things these days. The pub was fully “pre-booked” for the whole weekend, putting a bit of a downer on two optimistic ramblers.

We once again took to the road and found ourselves a pub in the small village of Haltwhistle, which had the remarkable yet somewhat unbelievable claim of being in the dead centre of Britain. Nevertheless, a quick reveal on Apple Maps confirmed the fact, here we had a village which was just south of the old border between England and Scotland which was indeed at the land masses epicentre, much to our bemusement. 

The Covid plastic sheets that draped from the ceilings and bar area put this previously quaint old English pub in a different light, so after quick meal washed down with a pint of Black and Tan (Guinness) for me at least, we headed back to the hostel to crash for the night. 

Eager to get out there, we set off just after the crack of dawn and headed up the road to see our first glimpse Hadrian’s Wall, taking the first of our thirty thousand steps for the day, a little over fifteen miles. 

Although a life off-grid will eventually mean that I will need different types of energy solutions (renewable and recyclable) to provide the power to my gizmos, my fully pre-charged tech would allow me to capture some photographic (camera phone) and video evidence (drone) of our trip, something we could look back on with fondness in the years to come. 

As we reached the first trail post, we were reminded straight away that even trekkers have to abide by strict rules and regulations, a sign of “No Drones” clearly emblazoned on the gate post. We have a lot of freedom in the UK (especially when compared to other countries) but I grow so weary about what we can and cannot do, feeling somewhat physically and emotionally constricted and trapped at times, which actually has the opposite effect on me, as conformity brings out the rebel and pseudo-anarchistic side of my nature, as it did the previous Saturday in Liverpool when the wife and I went to a freedom demonstration in Liverpool. 

Our first stop on the wall was at Sycamore Gap, a natural dip on the ridge line made even more impressive by the presence of solitary and majestic Sycamore tree, arguably the most famous tree in England made even more famous in the film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, where (if memory serves) Kevin Costner meets Morgan Freedman for the first time, clearly nowhere near Sherwood Forest in Nottingham a hundreds of miles south. 

After a few minutes contemplating a fly over with the drone (which didn’t take place due to the relatively high winds and the lightness of the device), we took some obligatory snaps and headed on in the direction of Newcastle and our destination for the morning, Housesteads, an old Roman village. 

The scenery as we passed over this historical site was breathtaking, the impressive wall still standing (albeit at a diminished height these days) sat behind quarried cliff faces, man-made lakes and deep dykes cut into the landscape where the terrain flattened out. 

As our path progressed, we stopped off at a small wood where “B” and his band of merry men (not Messrs Costner and Freedman) slept upon beds of soft lichens and mosses one year earlier, seeing a trap set by a would-be poacher to put in his pot at the close of day, empty for the time being. 

We made it to Housesteads, the first of three English Heritage sites we would visit over the weekend, and in my opinion the least impressive (although it was still a site to behold). To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, it was “a series of small walls” with pictorial and explanatory texts describing what housed the various functions and inhabitants in case the early morning imagination wasn’t firing on all cylinders yet. The beauty about our early morning trek was that there was no one on the path. We were alone, like solitary soldiers of yester-year, clocking off after a night shift at one of the many mile markers look out posts. 

After resting a while at the cafe with an English scone (clotted cream, strawberry preserve and a hot brew as bedfellows), we talked about how impressive a site like this must have been two millennia ago and how was it that a wall can still be standing after all this time, yet we needed to exchange our “broken” iPhones every two years. 

We retraced or our early morning steps back along the ridge line, save this time dodging fellow ramblers, trail runners and a large variety of their canine comrades whose numbers had grown exponentially over the last few hours. 

Our next stop was Vindolanda (pronounced Vindaloo-via by me as I couldn’t remember its name well after 13 miles trekking already on the clock). Again reminded that drones were not allowed, we took in some well earned lunch at the cafe, donned the now obligatory face mask to see the various treasures and findings the site owners had uncovered over recent years. 

The site itself was much more impressive than the last, with some of the staff recreating how pottery was made with a live kiln exhibition, which was followed up by a walk around the village, traipsing through gate houses, barracks, senior officer buildings and stables. A recreation of Hadrian’s Wall gave one a vision of how impressive this erection must have been back in the day, and with the dykes cut into one side how almost impenetrable and impregnable it must have been for the marauding Celts on the other side of it. 

As the sun started it’s journey back to the horizon (albeit in the west), we headed back to base camp to take some early evening refreshments. A look over our shoulder revealed an old tree, devoid of life but on the horizon the vivid and lively sycamore, a gap within a gap, photo of the day safely etched to the memory of the phone.

As the ale house next door was still fully booked (no cancellations but we managed to secure a Sunday roast slot the next day) we resigned ourselves to a few beers from the hostel bar (which of course had to be imbibed outside to to lockdown measures) and a house pizza rather than going back in the car to the “atmosphere-less” and “plasticated” public house a night earlier.

The ale at the hostel was supplied from the micro-brewery attached the to the Twice Brewed public house next door, we simply couldn’t resist the pull of one of the drinks on offer, wryly smiling as we ordered Ale, Caesar! in elevated voices (with a hint of a Graham Chapman lisp in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who played the amusingly named Biggus Dickus).

Imagine our amusement when the next round of drinks included two bottles of Holy Grail, which were allegedly tempered over burning witches and reminding us that our mothers were hamsters and our fathers smelt of elderberries..

As it turned out, our fifteen mile bimble and long working week had caught up on us anyway, so we took to the hostel bed a crashed out before twilight, replenishing our energy stocks for what was to come tomorrow.

As I lay there, my eyelids closing to the huge gravitational forces that they were now under, I was reminded (somehow or by something) of the poem by Robert Frost titled “The Road Less Traveled” and how poignant it was, on so many levels,

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference”

That poem summed it up nicely. Adjacent to Hadrian’s Wall is the Military Road, which is busy when compared to the trail on the ridge (especially in the morning). Sure our trip to Homesteads would have been quicker if we took the Military Road, but as Frost penned, the road less traveled made all the difference…

Hiking#1: Snowdonia (Beddgelert Day 2)

Waking to the chimes of Elegia by New Order is replaced today with the chides from my inner dialogue aiming directly towards the West Country folks on the next pitch who decide to continue unabated with the excessive noise levels of the previous evening. Whilst slightly annoyed, it does at least give me the get-up-and-go to get up and go.

After donning the trusty boots that served me well the previous day, I walk towards the lake and the morning dew on the grass gets to work on removing the mud from yesterday. The lake is shrouded in fine mist and is an eerie yet beautiful sight. I perch myself on a rock next to the lake and cease all thought processes, instead tuning in to the distant roar of flowing water, gulls swooping over the lake and the nearest snores of happy campers.

The call of nature kicks off my own call of nature and I make my way over to the toilet block noticing that the sun is rising over the distant hills to create biblical campfire in the sky, the early morning mist hanging like smoke in the air.

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The condensation is heavy on the tent so we shake it off and pack it away in record speed. I love the simplicity of the Nova Two Hundred, up and down in minutes and only two kilograms to carry in the backpack, it will really come into its own when I go wild camping soon.

After the morning evacuations are over, we concur that the on-site toilet paper was akin to wiping ones ass on a velvet owl, so smooth was the experience, quite unlike the majority of other sites we have visited. With our gear safely packed away in the boot of the car and the day pack ready to roll, we drive off to our starting point for the day, Bethania, which sounds like a country within a country to me. Once the parking ticket had been stuck to the driver’s door, we dine on cereal bars and water and head across the road to the start of the Watkin Path, from which we will split off from to take the path to Yr Aran, which standing at 2452ft is Snowdonias’ forty-second highest mountain for those counting.

We have been to the summit of Snowdon three times before but I decide against that today as I want to start “bagging” the ninety-three “Furths” and “Hewitts” in Snowdonia. Luke has already taken the majority of the path we intend to take today as his DofE Gold Award took him through the ridge line which dissects Yr Aran and Allt Maenderyn.

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As we start off on the path, I hear some fellow ramblers talking in Polish nearby (using several words I recognise from my many travels to Krakow) and the party leader makes his way over to me and asks for directions to the Llanberes path which is quite some distance away on the other side of Snowdon. I tell him that I think he is in the wrong place which gets lost in translation and after he asks for directions to “the big mountain” I show him the route up to Snowdon via the Watkin Path and off the party go.

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In terms of preparation for hiking (and I’m only a novice starting off) but there is too much preparation, the right preparation, not enough preparation and no preparation at all and our Polish walkers sadly fall into the latter, dressing in velour tracksuits and pink Converse will likely mean they will struggle ahead.

We cut the trail through the wood which opens out now so that we see the first views of Snowdon and the free-flowing water cascading down the hillside, noting that there will be plenty of opportunities to re-use the new water filtration system today.

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We head off our Polish brethren at the pass and take a short cut across the grass and swampy area to leave them with their path and clean trainers and quickly reach the point at which we leave the Watkin Path and head for Yr Aran. A small path heads up slightly and we get our first glimpse of the peak in the distance, not only does it look far away but looks quite tricky too, but when proximity occurs such peaks very rarely are.

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After a while we glance across at the Watkin and find no evidence to suggest that our Eastern European comrades have taken the trickier part of the path and presume that they have headed back down to the comfort of both the ride to Llanberes and the train up the mountain, where on board their choice of clothing for the day is absolutely welcomed.

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We reach the ridge line and see that the way up Yr Aran isn’t as difficult as is looked from below.

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We cross a few dry stone walls and circle around a small tarn and as we start our final ascent of the weekend, the wind starts whipping up. Thanks to the Uni Qlo down jacket my sudden onset of cold is banished and I beckon Luke to crack on, only he is now spent. The activities of yesterday, the hard slog across the pathless hillside to this point and having no requirement to bag Yr Aran today, he insists on sheltering from the wind which I dutifully nod to. I ask him to look after the backpack and throw the cars key on the top and head onward.

I guess like most peaks in Snowdonia, there are paths that pretty much take you to the top and Yr Aran is no exception to this. It takes about twenty minutes to peak the mountain and I take some well earned Haribo, sat strewn between a handful of soon-to-be woolly jumpers enjoying mid-morning breakfast of grass and more grass.

The view from the top is pretty good, the summit of Snowdon hidden from view by the clouds which makes it all the more mysterious as I’ve not seen it from this angle before. Off in the distance I see Llyn Gwynant where we started out this morning, a long way away now.

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As is now customary, I take a small rock from the top of Yr Aran to add to my growing collection back home and make my way back to Luke and the backpack. The path down is often more taxing on the knees and legs and there is no exception here. I temporarily forget where I had left both son and bag and jog right past both of them them, thankfully I am “singing” one of the tracks from the latest Royal Blood album as I trot and Luke pops his head over the wall to holler and I stop and wait for him.

We retrace our steps back towards the Watkin and as we reach the path again we see a couple on a quad bike with three sheepdogs in tow. The lady alights and puts a whistle to her and the dogs sprint off to round up several stray sheep, with a particular plump one struggling to escape, possible and sadly ending up nestling under a heap of mint jelly later on in the day.

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We reach the end of the path and with that, all cardiac activities cease for this weekend. Rather disappointingly, I end up with a bag full of plastic bottles collected on the way down (as I tend to do when I have space) from inconsiderate and accidental tourists.

With the car looming into sight as we make it back to the road, it hit me.

“The car keys” I scream, “I left them by the wall!”

“That’s unfortunate isn’t it” Luke replies smugly, “I’ll wait in the cafe for you, can I have some money for a coffee?”.

“Oh man, I can’t believe it.”

“Believe this.” and he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the keys. The relief on my face must have been a picture, but I think it was a missed opportunity for him as if it was me, I’d have at least seen him take a few steps back up the mountain before the jangling took place.

We check back in at the Caffi Gwynant and successfully access the free wifi after several attempts of inputting the lengthy and complicated Welsh password and send our first message back home due to the total network blackout in the Beddgelert region.

I reflect on our first dedicated overnight hiking trip as we quaff some hot java and it has been a great trip for many reasons. The digital detoxification goes without saying, the test of the new equipment was a success and as for spending quality one-to-one time with Luke, priceless…

Hiking#1: Snowdonia (Beddgelert Day 1)

Waking to the chimes of Elegia by New Order usually heralds the start of another working day but today is different. My weekend alarm clock is rarely turned on, and my circadian rhythm gets me up at this time anyway, but the ethereal tones of one of Manchester’s finest (made famous by the hit television series Stranger Things) today brings a smile to my face.

I turn to hit the snooze button for the mandatory nine-minutes of lethargy but realise that time waits for no man (or woman) and head for the shower, knocking on my sons door first. Our aim is to get on the road for seven o clock so we can start our foot journey through several parts of Snowdonia, an area quickly turning into my second home.


We convene in the kitchen for a travellers breakfast of cereal bars and coffee and place our backpacks in the boot of the car and head for the Welsh border. Motorway travel is overly tedious and repetitive but thankfully we only need to take it for twenty miles before we start on the smaller roads, and with that the first sight of digital detoxification.

The Clwydian range is only forty minutes from home with a prevailing wind and as we pass over the border we see Jubilee Tower atop Moel Famau, a family favourite we head to each Boxing Day in an attempt to walk off the calorie overload from the day before.

The weather report for the weekend does not look great but the highly paid folks at the BBC and Met Office rarely get it right these days and as Snowdonia approaches, the dark clouds do seem to be gathering ahead so maybe they have it right this time.

One of the main things about leaving the city behind is the attention to detail returns away from the noise of everyday life and it never surprises how quickly the stress levels diminish as red blocks are replaced by green carpets. This is apparent as we pass through the small town of Llanwrst. Whilst admiring the quaintness of the village we pass by a church on the other side of a small river, a church I have seen many times before except this time I notice an ancient stone circle in the foreground, for me a sign that the complexity and noise of city living is already wearing off.

We pass through the beautiful Betws-Y-Coed without incident. The last two times I have been here has oddly put me into situations with the locals, neither of them my really fault. On the first occasion, a driver pulled out in front of me sharply and I had to slam hard on the breaks, subsequently beeping my horn in disgust. I made my way to a nearby garage to stop and check that the kids were alright, I turned to face the other driver who had me followed me, jumping out of his car to threaten me as I fixed my three year old daughters seat belt. He quickly backed down when I asked him did whether he really wanted to start a fight in front of a little girl, the situation presented to him thankfully made him stop and splutter, followed by a quick retreat to his car, put in his place rightly by his wife who calmly whispered in my ear that her husband was an idiot and the incident wasn’t my fault.

More recently when we heading over to Snowdon for an ascent with the children, I took a wrong turn down a narrow road and started to make a U-turn across what I thought to be some wasteland, which turned out to be a locals front lawn, a front lawn which was apparently being seeded at the time. As I went to pull off, the house owner threw himself in front of my car and started screaming at me, literally frothing at the mouth. I wasn’t sure whether he had recently been bitten by a rabid dog or whether he hadn’t finished brushing his teeth but either way I didn’t feel the urge to stick around so I waved an apologetic hand and got back on the road.

We arrive at Llyn Gwynant campsite at eight-thirty and check in, the clouds beginning to clear already. My son has recently finished part one of his Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Gold Award and has stayed at the site before, I did try to persuade him to wild camp but he didn’t seem overly keen and I was happy for the company so I didn’t push it this time.

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The site is right at the edge of the lake deep in an almost crater-like valley. I look around and notice a middle-aged man dressed in regular hiking gear sitting at the edge of the lake meditating, becoming one with his surroundings.

“Looks like a great place” I say to L.

“That’s why we are here” he replies, spouting wisdom beyond his years.

We decide to move all of the hiking equipment into one backpack so we can lighten the load and share the burden and start making our way around the edge of the lake, nearly losing our shoes to the mud in the process. My intent was always to park at Rhyd Ddu and hike to the campsite with all of our camping gear, but the overnight parking rules in Snowdonia prevent that so we are left with little alternative but to take the Snowdon Sherpa bus from the campsite to Beddgelert and get a connection to our starting point from there.

We arrive in Beddgelert at ten-past-ten and wonder if waiting the one-hour-ten for the next bus is the best option. I see the sign for the train station and I wonder whether it is an operable one as my research of transport in the local area yielded no results on the train network website. As we make our way over to the station we hear a loud peep and come to the conclusion that the train is in fact a steam train and we see it moving ahead, as if it was just leaving. Luckily a local couple advise that the train will stop suddenly and wait for around five minutes for passengers, so we quickly head over to the ticket office and secure two tickets to the village we were pronouncing so woefully, Rhyd Ddu is not “Rid Doo” we are politely informed but “Rith-the”. Rudimentary Welsh language lesson one complete.

As we climb aboard, we are both quietly excited, me more so, as we have never been on a steam train before. This was a new “modus iter facio” for us and as we depart for our destination, we place our heads out of the windows (right above the sign which advises us to do the contrary) and take in the alien yet strangely aromatic smells of the steam and soot mix and get an eye full of black particles in the process.

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An at-seat trolley service serves us both up a cup freshly brewed instant travel coffee which we quaff without a quality assurance discussion, taking in the views of nature, including free range chicken farms, fast running streams and of course the many Furths and Hewitts of Snowdonia.

The train pulls into our destination station and we gather our things. As we walk down the platform we see the First Class Pullman carriage which looks rather cosy and admire the steam engine, a fabulous machine and truly historic way to travel.

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Our path starts across the road from the station and as self-proclaimed leader of the pack, Luke beckons me to follow him which I dutifully do. Although he has trodden the path weeks earlier with his DofE comrades, my road today is a journey between nowhere and nowhere with a bunch of nothing in between and I kind of like that.

The trail takes us to the base of Y Garn but we don’t take the mountain path and instead head for the trees of Beddgelert Forest passing several runners, ramblers and riders as we go.

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It’s times like these that I value the most. Modern life is far too complicated and filled with distraction, walking through the overhanging canopy with the sun shining through the cracks seems to evaporate all remaining pockets of stress and memories of the commercial model.

Luke opens up too and quality one-to-one time with him always reveals his inner thoughts even though at times I still have to tease them out of him. Amongst the opulent foliage, a rural tapestry backdrop, our conversation quickly turns to the meta-physical concept of happiness and I ask him what truly makes him happy. A semi-closeted response reveals that travelling and reading are the main things that make him happy. He reveals his future plan to travel over land from the UK to Japan, snaking through Europe and Northern Asia swooping down through Malaysia, the country where he spent his formative years.

I concur without challenge and admire that as a sixteen year old he has such drive and ambition to see the world rather than read about it in a book. We discuss my latest blog which covers the twenty-eight countries I have been to and talk of my experiences, a lot of which he also shares, all of which seems to turn a light on in him as he subsequently rattles off all of the places he intends to visit and the reasons for doing so.

As the sun beats down I notice that his left arm is becoming slightly inflamed and I tell him to cover up. The fact that he is here on the path today is a real bonus for me, as things could have been very different.

A number of years back he started his own exploration of Mother Earth by commencing with the DofE program and it was whilst he was on his first mission that disaster struck.

I recall in detail the phone call I received from the DofE Leader as I was travelling back from a business trip to London. He relayed the news that Luke had been involved in an accident and “as a precaution” he was on his way to Wrexham General hospital. I remember at the time, time slowed down and something in the pit of my stomach dropped a few feet, all external sound was extinguished and my inner dialogue went into overdrive. He asked me could I get to the hospital to pick him up once discharged and I advised my current travel plans and that I would enlist the driving services of the wife.

Brokering that deal was never going to be easy and although I tried to lessen the impact and emotion I was not very successful. She drove at breakneck speeds to the hospital as I diverted my route home to meet them all there.

I got to the hospital as soon as I could, neither knowing the finer details of the injury nor how it had happened. Seeing a thirteen-year-old child with skin and blisters dripping from an arm was a tough thing to see. As he took pauses from Entonox intakes (gas and air to the uneducated) he let his unfortunate story unfold. As the group were preparing the evening meal, one of his comrades circumvented the safety procedures and filled up the stove not with the safety bottle, but from a 5 litre canister of paraffin oil. This was passed on to Luke who then proceeded to fill up the stove not knowing that the flame was not yet out. The resulting splash back engulfed him with flames and but for the quick thinking of another comrade who pushed him into a nearby stream, the injuries I saw before me that night could have been a whole lot worse.

We live in a society which mocks and ridicules those who do not look like models in glamour publications and as an aspiring actor, if it was Luke’s face that was covered in flames and not his arm, then his future career would likely be over and with that all manner of psychological problems and days like this may not have taken place. Thankfully over time he recovered and all that remains now is a tea-stain which flares up when he has had too much sun.

What does show the measure of him and his sheer determination is by taking his Silver and Gold DofE Awards and that real-life experience gives valuable insights in what not to do at times.

Running low on water supplies we stop off at a small waterfall in the forest and try out the new MSR Trailshot which is a hand-pumped filtration device for those on the move, all very successfully implemented.

“So what is your favourite book?” Luke asks randomly.

“Well as you know” I say rather embarrassingly “I’m not a big reader but there are several books that come to mind.”

“Just one will do.” comes the response.

“If I had to narrow it down to one desert island book it would probably be the book I’ve never read.”

“Huh?”

“I’m currently reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and I already have a feeling it will be that.”

“So what is it about?”

“So far it’s about a guy who embarks on a motorcycle journey across America with his son, and through it discusses numerous philosophical discussions around materialism, metaphysics and his own mental health after thinking far too much about the first two M’s.”

“You really are a pseudo-hippy aren’t you?” he says accompanied by that sarcastic smile he casts from time to time.

“What exactly do you mean?” I question, slightly annoyed.

“Well here we have a man who says he loathes capitalism and commercialism, burns joss sticks, takes yoga lessons and reads books on consciousness and metaphysics, who works in the oil and gas industry, drives a Jeep and owns property in the UK and USA.”

“Hey that sounds like me.” I say, trying to diffuse a potential negative vibe from occuring.

“It is you, and then there was all that Yoga Mike crap where you created an alter ego for Facebook so that people you didn’t want to connect with couldn’t find you, you do realise how hypocritical that was right?”

“Let’s just say that I had my reasons at the time, and as an intellectually enlightened youth who has obviously lived this life before” said with an equally sarcastic smile “you showed me the error of my ways and ‘It’ no longer exists.”

“Yeah right.” he smugly concludes.

We continue walking through the forest after this amusing exchange with no aftermath of bitterness, but I smile inwardly knowing that he was totally correct and possesses a very wise head on young shoulders.

As we near Beddgelert the friendliness of the passer-by diminishes as is the way with most places, the further away from humanity one gets the more humane it becomes when you do see fellow man (or woman).

Beddgelert is a lovely little town and always a vibrant place whenever I visit, full of ramblers passing through the wonder of Snowdonia, stopping off briefly to take in local ice creams and locally brewed ales.

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We take a slight detour to take in Gelerts’ grave, and according to legend, the stone monument in the field marks the resting place of ‘Gelert’, the faithful hound of the medieval Welsh Prince Llewelyn the Great. The story, as written on the tombstone reads:

“In the 13th century Llewelyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, ‘The Faithful Hound’, who was unaccountably absent. On Llewelyn’s return the truant, stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The prince alarmed hastened to find his son, and saw the infant’s cot empty, the bedclothes and floor covered with blood. The frantic father plunged his sword into the hound’s side, thinking it had killed his heir. The dog’s dying yell was answered by a child’s cry. Llewelyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed, but nearby lay the body of a mighty wolf which Gelert had slain. The prince filled with remorse is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here”.

The weather is hot today so we are not surprised to see the local “squad” bathing and swimming in the deeper parts of the Afon Colwyn and a part of Luke is eager to get back to Llyn Gwynant to the exact same.

We head out on the trail towards Llyn Dinas which follows the river and pass a delightful collection of Welsh cottages as we leave the village. As the town disappears out of view behind us, we follow the river trail and I stop a while to talk to a group of ramblers who are foraging deep in the hedgerows for wild blackberries. Our energy so far had been kept up by Luke’s mandatory sponsor for the trip, Haribo, but I quickly deselect this as the travelling snack of choice and stockpile on the delicious and free fayre served up by Mother Nature herself.

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We look to press on around the lake but our path is blocked by a herd of black cows, with a particularly aggressive looking bull complete with a golden ring through his nose goading us for a confrontation which he is not getting from us today.

Up ahead we see the main road again and with it a stop at the Caffi Gwynant for our second coffee of the day, a caffeine boost required for the final push, which as Luke advises, involves some scrambling.

Instead of taking the leisurely path that takes us through farms, we instead take the alternative route next to the river and nearly lose our shoes for the second time today. We cross a bridge next to the opening of the lake and proceed through the trees to the side of Gallt Y Wenallt where indeed our path up is strewn with boulders and rocks which adds to the whole experience and for me is the highlight of the hike.

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We reach base camp at three-thirty and set up the wild camping tent in a not so wild camping location in minutes and decide it is in our best interests to drive back into town to pick up some supplies for the evening, namely cider, a towel for Luke’s swim back at Llyn Gwynant and some joss sticks, not for the pseudo-hippy shopper, but as a deterrent to the thousands of midges and gnats that dance in the descending sunlight above our tent.

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As this trip also serves as a test for my recent purchases, I fire up the impressive Coleman PCS FyreStorm stove which heats the water for our Adventure Food evening meals within a ridiculously short amount of time, the ensuing pasta the perfect accompaniment to the on-site pizza we have just purchased from the travelling trattoria, and with the quaffing of cider to wash it down against a backdrop of spiralling smoke signals from the joss sticks, it is a perfect way to round off another perfect day in Snowdonia for me, for Luke a quick swim in the lake which doubles up as his shower for the evening rounds off a perfect day for him…

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Into The Wild…

I have probably spent more nights out under the stars this year than in any other of my forty-five year tenure as the 3,838,266,373rd homo sapien (and is there any coincidence that when I add all of those digits up it comes to forty-nine [seven x seven year chakra cycles according to the Buddhists] probably not).

As a result of several forays into the semi-wild (camp sites versus wild camping), a great many things have become apparent.

My children have a love for the great outdoors and appear happiest when safely ensconced in our part-time origami homestead surrounded by a sea of greenery and fresh air. When we are at home, like most post-nuclear families, we suffer from gizmo overload and frequently experience what I term “Technology Tourette’s”; that moment when you ask for a small piece of someone’s time and are confronted with snarls, jerks and abusive language due to the IT interruption.

I have a love for the great outdoors and appear happiest when safely ensconced in my part-time origami homestead surrounded by a sea of greenery and fresh air. I have travelled all over the world, experiencing a wide range of vistas, cultures and biospheres, but in my honest opinion there is no place quite like Snowdonia in North Wales. When the weather is fine, the majestic beauty and accessibility to nature and peace is second to none. Mountains, rivers, forests and trails are in abject abundance and with that comes a complete divorce from the internal noise generated from the rat race.

As a tinnitus sufferer, one would think that camping in the middle of nowhere in areas devoid of noise would drive one insane, but no. There is noise, the right noise, the noise of nature. No electric or traffic hum, no noisy neighbours or revellers, just trickling streams, bleating animals, rain, wind and the rustling of tent walls. These are all welcomed white noise sounds which allow anyone with tinnitus near perfect conditions for a silent slumber. External noise is one thing, internal noise is another. Being disconnected from both the connected world and the commercial world dissolves (albeit for a shorter time than I would currently like) all responsibility and associated stress.

Camping at official campsites with on-site facilities and a car boot full convenience is a bloody good start to get back to basics. Some of the sites I have visited this year have had a fair share of commercialism about them, whilst others are quite literally “a field with a loo”.

The next step I am about to take is wild camping, being somewhat inspired to do so by the writings and photography of “R.P”, also known as the UK Backpacker; a recent acquisition to my growing WordPress family, as well as the film Into The Wild, my all time favourite road trip / voyage of discovery movie. Thankfully “R.P” has already given me some sage kit, food and supply advice and his most recent trip to Snowdonia is similar to my planned inaugural hike and wild camping expedition with my son “L” from LLanfairfechan to Betws-Y-Coed over a few nights.

I guess ones takes inspiration where one can and I need look no further than my children. “J” in his focus and dedication to fitness and nutrition is a model of bodily perfection, even though it is seriously out of my grasp (at present) due to the pressures of modern life. “L” in his focus and dedication to creativity, with acting and public speaking turning him into a supremely confident and competent young man. “K” in her focus and dedication to absolute kindness towards humans and animals, with a wanting to commune with nature and the outdoors whenever possible.

If I had their combined strengths, if I had a portmanteau of their individual skills and drive, then this future gestalt state of mind, body and soul will help me to succeed at wild camping, I just need to work on that over the coming weeks in preparation for the trip.

As I contemplate what may be some turbulent waters on the job front over the next six months and with it potential financial precariousness, I take solace in the fact that I am not only surrounded by a wonderful family but also a realm of greenery that is within a short journey from the non-origami homestead in Wirral. If further contemplation is required, I will of course refer to the photos below…

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