Gilbert White, Selborne and a hangover

‘I feel sick’.

We stepped onto the station platform at Liss with our bikes, the sky a non-committal slosh of grey, damp air pungent with the possibility of some real rain. Ten minutes on the train had cut out an hour on busy main roads but I wondered if I might have felt better cycling, even with exhaust fumes blasting into my face. Probably not.

The combination of Chinese takeout the night before – I suspect msg – and mixing red and white wine had created the perfect storm of shattering headache and churning stomach that made levering myself out of bed unthinkable. But we were due to head back to Canada in two days and this was the last chance to head to Selborne, a pretty village (is there any other kind in the South Downs?) and lifelong home of the Reverend Gilbert White (1720-1793), considered England’s first ecologist and revered ‘founding father’ of modern scientific recording – Darwin claimed he ‘stood on the shoulders’ of White. He’s probably best known for the Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, a publication that has never been out of print. That’s quite something.

‘I think I have to sit down’. Steps away from the station, we spotted a wooden bench set on a tiny triangle of grass. A scattering of trees swayed in the gentle breeze, a small stream flowed by under a bridge. Soothed, my stomach slowly settled down. Gingerly I remounted my bike and we headed out of town, looking for our turn-off to the village. We overshot it, but not by much, and once we’d doubled back found ourselves once again on narrow, quiet lanes.

English country lanes

Quiet lanes

Thankfully it was one of the easiest days of riding we’d had in over two weeks of cycle touring in England last June. The hills were gentle, the route easy to find, the temperature neither too warm nor too cold despite the low clouds. It was all very bucolic. We inhaled the scent of wild garlic growing in clumps by the road and occasionally stopped to look at the view across fields and woods. We barely saw any cars. A cyclist waved as he rode past in the opposite direction. Reassured by the relative solitude of our ride I climbed over a five-barred gate for a quick nature break in a field behind a sheltering hedgerow.

It was just as peaceful when we arrived in Selborne and stashed our bikes outside The Wakes,  once the home of White, now a museum dedicated not only to the pioneering naturalist and ornithologist, but also somewhat oddly to Frank Oates, a Victorian explorer, and his nephew Captain Lawrence Oates, a member of the catastrophic Antarctica expedition led by Captain Robert Scott. When a public appeal failed to raise enough money to secure the house as a museum commemorating White, Robert Washington Oates, cousin of Captain Oates, offered to buy the house on condition that there should also be an Oates Museum within the building. Somehow the juxtaposition of the two elements didn’t feel as jarring as it had seemed at first.

Museum of Gilbert White

Gilbert White's house and gardens

‘The Wakes’, Gilbert White’s home.

In a very English manner we refuelled with quiche, sandwiches and a pot of tea in the genteel Tea Parlour before wandering around the house and gardens. The sense that this was a home that had been much loved, unpretentious, lived in and peaceful permeated throughout. Sweeping lawns flowed down to grassy fields, themselves backed by ‘hangers’, ancient wooded hillsides. Vegetable patches, flower beds and an orchard made up the rest of grounds – with design curiosities tucked away here and there, like the ‘statue’ of Hercules, actually a picture painted on board.

cardboard cutouts for statues, Gilbert White

Ingenious ‘statue’ of Hercules

Gilbert White gardens

A very English garden

We spent a peaceable time ambling around the grounds, quietly exploring in a way that I silently speculated to myself White would have approved of. Inside the house we read about his life, peeked into his sparse bedroom and at the original manuscript of a Natural History of Selborne on display. We paid a visit to the local church just across the road from his home where White is buried. A simple grave in a simple churchyard overlooking the countryside White loved so much.

Gilbert White's bedroom

Bedroom of Gilbert White. The embroidered bedspread and bed hangings were stitched by his aunts.

It was an unhurried visit to the home of someone who lived their life with great sensitivity and a keen observation of their surroundings. By the time we left for the ride back I felt restored. A day spent riding country lanes and wandering around a garden will do that.

A statue in the gardens of Gilbert White

‘Hercules’ backed by a hanger

It is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined ~ Gilbert White

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B is for Beetroot

Drawing of a beetroot

Beetroot

I’m jumping all over the alphabet here, not that I considered drawing in any kind of order, that would be expecting a bit too much of myself. I’m chaotic at best with my illustration workflow, something to get to grips with (perhaps) as the New Year begins. It would be fun to eventually draw an A-Z of fruit and vegetables. I’ve covered a few letters: C for carrot, or P for prune plum for instance. Some I’ve been happier with than others of course, but that’s par for the course. The important thing is to keep drawing – and writing, taking photographs and playing in the great outdoors – that’s my aim. In the meantime it’s time for a cup of tea and a fresh-baked ginger cookie, or two, straight out of the oven.

Happy New Year!

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Tofino, British Columbia

‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin’-William Shakespeare.

Photo album of a two night visit to Tofino, on the West Coast of British Columbia.

This is just a small selection of photos from far too many I took. We just got back from Tofino and I’m already missing the rhythmic sound of ocean waves at night, the cool damp air, the mulchy squish of forest floor underfoot. No traffic (I realized the constant sound of traffic makes me angry). Surfers braving the frigid water. A fireplace to read by as we sprawled out on the sofa in our cosy suite. Spray from blowholes off the shoreline indicating the presence of whales. Wolf and bear territory. Nature.

Kelp on Long Beach, Tofino

Kelp on Long Beach

Sea vegetation, Mackenzie Beach, Tofino

Sea vegetation, Mackenzie Beach

Sea anemone, Mackenzie Beach, Tofino

Sea anemone, Mackenzie Beach

Tree lichen, Tofino

Tree lichen

Driftwood, Chesterman Beach, Tofino

Washed up tree rolling around in the waves at Chesterman Beach

Author at work taking photos

Sneaky shot of me by Scott

photo of photograher poring over camera

And I took a sneaky one of him!

shorebirds on Long Beach

Shorebirds on Long Beach

Seagull flying, Long Beach

Seagull in flight, Long Beach

Beach and sky merge, Long Beach, Tofino

In the other direction beach meets sky, Long Beach

Evening sun at Long Beach, Tofino

Late afternoon at Long Beach

surfers, Long Beach, Tofino

Low-key surfing as the sun sinks, Long Beach

Taking photos of waves at Florencia Beach, Tofino

Taking photos at Florencia Beach. Photo by Scott

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Carrot and Stick

The stick was my admitting that I needed to get drawing again – once I’d said it publicly I felt compelled to get on with it, knowing I would feel guilty if I didn’t. The carrot is, well, the carrot. I’ve started to draw again and it feels good. Or maybe the carrot is the number of new coloured pencils I felt were necessary to treat myself to. Either way.

Drawing of a carrot

Carrot

There’s a quote attributed to Jim Davis, but I’m not sure if it came directly from his mouth or via that of his creation, Garfield: ‘vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie’. I like it.

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Monarch of the Glen – Getting Inspired to Draw Again

‘Writer’s block’, a ‘dry spell’, ‘a creative slowdown’…..there’s multiple ways to describe periods spent unable or unwilling to write. But what’s the equivalent for drawing and illustration? ‘Creative block’ I suppose. There are so many distractions around and subjects calling for our attention that it’s easy to neglect those very things that nourish us.

I’ve been circling (ugh, no pun intended) around drawing for a while now. And feeling terribly guilty for not getting stuck into it. Not sure why, since I enjoy it so much once I get going. Probably because I also know it’s good for my psyche to do it. It’s like eating well, you know it’s good for you, it makes you feel much better for it, so when you go off the rails too much (I’m looking at you milk chocolate) you feel sheepishly guilty for letting yourself down.

It was a good kick in the pants then when I stumbled on an article on the BBC about Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen (a bit of a dispute about where he painted the iconic masterpiece). It reminded me of something I drew years ago in school during one of our weekly art classes, just practicing with a pencil. My mum found it stuffed in my art folder back home, the paper a bit creased, and sent along a photo of it. Reminds me of how I used to draw without thinking too much about it too much, not worrying if it was ‘perfect’ or not. I love that sense of looseness and freedom when you care about creating something but not so much that it stifles you. What you end up with might be a bit rough, but no less satisfying for it.

drawing of Monarch of the Glen

Monarch of the Glen

Time to pick up those pencils again…..

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Wild Camping (sort of) in the Nicola Valley

mountain biking near Merritt

Autumnal riding

‘Can you hear the coyotes yipping?’ Scott asked. I turned my head slightly from where it was buried in his warm shoulder, freeing my left ear from the sleeping bag pulled up to nearly the top of my head.

‘Yes, wow, there’s so many’.

Not only were the coyotes out in full force, but an owl kept up a consistent ‘whoo whoo’; good hunting I guess by the light of the three-quarter full moon. Or perhaps the wild creatures were less hesitant to make themselves heard, claiming back more of their territory as the camping season died down with the approach of late autumn. I snuggled deeper into the layers of sleeping bag, old duvet and mounds of clothes we’d thrown on top of ourselves in the freezing night. Dressed in fleece pants, thermal tops and socks we were just about warm enough in our tiny lightweight tent. The moon lighting up the flimsy grey nylon made it seem as if it was permanently twilight.

tent and bikes camping outside Merritt

Our tiny tent, and bikes, with loo roll attached! Biodegradable and burnable!

Earlier, as dusk started to fall, we’d heard what sounded like a curious cross between a grunt and a rasping cough. Spooked, we’d all looked around sharply at where the noise came from, just behind us in a small grove of trees. Images of bears and mountain lions padded through our minds but the odd sound came from high off the ground. Later we heard it from treetops on the opposite side from where we’d camped. Perhaps another owl?

We hadn’t expected it to be so cold, but it was beautiful. Looking out of the tent in the early dawn the creeping light glistened off a hard frost. I was glad of all the warm clothing we’d brought for wild camping in the backcountry, in mid autumn near Lundbom Lake outside of Merritt in the Nicola Valley of British Columbia. In an area significantly higher than sea level, I knew it would be chilly during the night at the very least.

We’d arrived early the morning before, following detailed instructions, and found my sister, brother-in-law and their two dogs warming themselves around a robust fire. Tucked up an innocuous dirt road away from a nearby forestry campground, we revelled in the space and quiet away from others. There was no rush to change into mountain bike gear – part of the reason we were out here was to discover flowy trails in more open country, very different from the coastal riding we’re used to. Eventually though, after chomping through some mammoth sandwiches and donning all the cold weather gear we’d brought with us, we set off on a thoroughly leisurely ride.

open grasslands, near Merritt

Sun peeking out

Gorgeous autumnal colours drenched the landscape – all browns, yellows and fading greens. We rode through soft dirt and stones, loosened by horses hooves throughout the year, the sun chasing the clouds. I could feel my lungs working a little harder, that above sea level thing again, plus we were both getting over a bad cold, but it was worth the raspy breathing and constant nose blowing we had to endure. I’d never been to this area before and I loved it. We rode for three hours, not long really but enough to give us a taste of this open country.

mountain bike trails, Merritt

Interesting mountain bike trail names

Huddled around a huge fire later as dark fell we ate far too much, washing the food down with a good bottle of red (natch) wine and several beers. Even with the moon we could see the Milky Way; we sat craning our necks for ages staring at the night sky, one of my favourite pastimes.

fire at night, camping

Relaxing around the fire

It was only one night away, but enough to fill up with the freshest of air. And good timing too, the evening after we left it started to snow.

 

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Raspberry Rhubarb Pie with Coffee Ice Cream

raspberry rhubarb pie and coffee ice cream

Sometimes, shit happens.

Last weekend we rode to Victoria on Vancouver Island for an overnight visit with a good friend. It was great; we spent time chatting, drinking excellent wine, eating delicious food. Had a lovely ride out and back on the Lochside Trail. The ferry ride is always stunning– I even saw what I’m pretty sure were porpoises carving through the water. I was thrilled, I’d made a point of not looking at my iPhone, it’s amazing how much you miss when you look at a screen instead of looking around.

The day after getting back into town we decided to take a run up to Squamish and fit in a quick mountain bike ride. It was a stunning day, a hint of chill air tempered by the autumn sun. A chipmunk bounced up to my feet and stood on its back legs peering up at me as I threw on my camelbak. I smiled, its nice to feel connected in even the smallest way to the natural world and its inhabitants.

After an hour or so of riding, muscles and joints warmed up, we started down an area called Rob’s Corners. Fully in the flow Scott suddenly, with a screech of brakes and flurry of dust, slid to a halt hacking and coughing. Turns out some kind of wasp or bee had flown in his mouth, stung him on the inside of his throat and most likely ended up being swallowed. It was freaky how quickly he felt his throat swell up on one side. I was about to call for help but Scott managed to swallow two antihistamines and we made our way gingerly back to the car. Luckily he doesn’t have allergies to bees or wasps (he carries antihistamines for hayfever) but we were ready to duck off to a surgery if there was even the slightest hint that he was having difficulty breathing.

Maybe the chipmunk had been trying to tell me something. ‘Don’t go up there!’ (in chipmunk speak it was probably more like ‘nuts, nuts, I like nuts, do you have nuts?’).

It took Scott a day or two for his throat to feel back to normal. Obviously for the bee or wasp it was a significantly worse encounter. I’m aware that in the scheme of things all this was small potatoes but it’s still a bit of jolt to realize how fast a day can change. Oh, and apparently it’s always a good idea to carry antihistamines biking, camping, riding etc.

None of this really has much to do with raspberry rhubarb pie and coffee ice cream, except that maybe it does. You have to appreciate the small things, a sunny day, rain, being with people you love, good food, good friends, a walk, a ride. Simple stuff.

The season is over for both raspberries and rhubarb (I’ve been meaning to post this recipe for a while but never got around to it) but it’s really just as good with frozen fruit.

raspberry rhubarb pie

Raspberry Rhubarb Pie

I leaned on my usual go-to for pastry. Once I’ve lined a buttered pie dish with half of the pastry I fill it with about two cups of raspberries and the same of washed and chopped rhubarb. Sprinkle over approximately two tablespoons of coconut sugar (add more or less according to your taste) and pour about 1/2 cup of orange juice over the fruit. Cover the fruit with the pastry, cutting off any extra hanging over the sides and pressing down on the edge of the pastry dish to seal. I’ll usually whisk together one egg and a little milk and brush the mixture onto the pastry so it gets that lovely golden colour and sheen when it’s cooked.

On a side note, I’m enjoying organic coconut sugar. It’s supposed to be on the lower side of the glycemic index and has a delicious caramel taste. It is a bit more granular than refined sugar so bear that in mind. I actually like the texture and am using it for pretty much anything I add sugar to. And it is still sugar, so best used sparingly.

I couldn’t resist throwing some coffee ice cream into the mix based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe. I’ve figured out my happy place with the ice cream after a few tries. I did have what you might call mixed results before when I used ground coffee. Not my finest hour, although loyal friends did finish it off for me. I made the effort to track down some espresso powder this time and it worked like a charm. I also reduced the amount of powder and coffee liqueur from two tablespoons to one tablespoon each as I was finding it a bit strong. Perfect!

It’s the little things…..

Raspberry rhubarb pie and coffee ice cream

Pie and ice cream

 

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Dorset Idyll. A Trip to Thomas Hardy’s Cottage

‘The sky was clear – remarkably clear – and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse’ – Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
A Dorset Idyll. Thomas Hardy's Cottage

Hardy’s Cottage. View from the garden

Tears welled up a little as I leant over the pretty green gate at the side of Thomas Hardy’s cottage. I was actually here, standing where once he must have at some point in his life, looking out from the garden in front of his house to the lane that ran alongside.

Yup, geeking out on Thomas Hardy. If pressed I might also have to admit to Hardy being my favourite author. I may even have reread Under the Greenwood Tree recently and Far From the Madding Crowd for the first time (how did I miss that before?). I’m planning to revisit The Mayor of Casterbridge and at some point tackle his poetry, although I have to admit I’m more of a prose fan than a poetry fan. Don’t judge me.

My emotion leaning over the gate of course may also have had something to do with the fact that it had been a long, hot day – we were still riding in the midst of an unusual heat wave in England – and just standing in the garden of the house where Hardy was born, grew up and wrote some of his most famous work – Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd for instance – felt like a wonderful reward for our efforts.

Sunny day at Thomas Hardy's cottage

Idyllic summer day at Hardy’s cottage

Concerned by the oppressiveness of the heat and the fact everywhere we rode took far longer than we expected, English hills being a wildcard factor an’ all, we had got up early in West Sussex to ride to the train station a couple of hours away; we planned to travel via train to Dorset, so cutting out a big chunk of riding via busy Southampton and Bournemouth, saving our limited time for exploring more of the county Hardy called Wessex in his novels.

We arrived at the small, neat train station of Dorchester and struck out into the city itself; it’s of a manageable size whilst still feeling bustling and vibrant. What I saw of it as we passed through I liked, a lot. As ever it still took a while for us to find and pick up the Sustrans cycling route but we eventually stumbled across it and navigated country lanes to Higher Bockhampton and the cob and thatch cottage.

Roses over front door of Hardy's cottage

Roses over front door

Before we even attempted to explore we recouped with tea, sickly sweet coffee cake and cold cider outside the National Trust reception and tea room (Hardy’s cottage, like many historical sites, is managed by the NT) sheltering from the sun under nearby trees. It was all very English and a bit of a stomach churning mix of food and drink, but when you’ve been sweltering on bikes you’ll vacuum up just about anything.

Once again, as was becoming the norm on this trip, I had to fend off the overtures by  National Trust staff to buy yearly memberships. Their persistence was dogged but a small price to pay for their unfailing courteousness and helpfulness. We wheeled our bikes up the gravelled lane towards the cottage and were allowed to shovel our bikes, panniers and helmets along the side of a small kiosk at the entrance to the gardens where a staffer kindly volunteered to watch over our gear.

Map of Hardy's Wessex

Hardy’s Wessex

A flower-lined path led to the rose festooned front door of the cottage. Inside we bowed under low door frames into sparsely furnished small rooms that still smelt of smoke from many, many years of wood fires. An almost impossibly narrow stairway led up to the bedroom where Hardy wrote. Reproductions of his maps and writing artifacts are carefully placed throughout (the originals are on view in the Dorset Museum in Dorchester). It all effectively conjured up the life of rural simplicity that  Hardy loved and was reflected in his writing, even in his darkest novels.

The bedroom where Thomas Hardy wrote

Thomas Hardy’s bedroom

We emerged to wander the forested grounds, ponds and surrounding heathland, all inspiration for his work. It’s nice to know that from humble beginnings Hardy enjoyed success in his lifetime ultimately moving into the home he designed and had built, Max Gate, just outside of Dorchester.

view into garden from front door of Thomas Hardy's cottage

View from front door of Thomas Hardy’s cottage

We finally tore ourselves away from this idyll, retrieving our bikes and setting out for another hour or so of riding surrounded by sun-drenched countryside. In the evening, as the day cooled, we wandered down to a gate in the garden of the latest B&B and gazed across a heritage orchard as the light dipped. I was in Hardy country, I couldn’t have asked for much more.

Looking across an orchard in Dorset

Gate to orchard, Dorset

‘To dwellers in a wood almost every tree has its voice as well as its feature’ – Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy.

 

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The Green Fields of England

Don’t be fooled. You may think of England’s hills as ‘green and pleasant’ – and they are – but they are also incredibly, and often quite suddenly, steep. They seem even steeper when you’re toiling up them on a touring bike loaded down with far-too-heavy panniers.

I’ve found my limit is a 17% incline, the point at which I can’t push the pedal around just one more time. My speed drops to around 4kms and then that’s it, I’m off the bike and walking, slumping over the handlebars in defeat as I toil up the hill. In Dorset even the local cows were wondering what the heck we were doing as we trudged up a road towards them.

Dorset Cows

Curious Cows

We were nearing the end of an roughly eight hour day, blood sugar crashing as we wolfed down Clif shot bloks, water and chocolate digestives. I didn’t think I had much left in me until I looked up and saw two faces peeking above a hedgerow as if to say ‘what you guys doin’? I started laughing instead of crying, which is what I’d wanted to do a minute before.

Small Blue Planet Post Bike Routes

Sustrans route signs

We cycle toured for just over two weeks often using  Sustrans routes from roughly the South Downs to Dartmoor with a couple of hops on the train, bypassing busy cities to save time. I’ll write in more detail about our trip later but for now the photos give an idea of some of the gorgeous countryside we passed through.

Small Blue Planet Post Distant Hills

Distant hills

Small Blue Planet Post Country Lane

Classic English countryside, with a local hiker.

We landed in England at the beginning of an unusual 30c heatwave and spent the next five days negotiating hills and patches of melting, freshly laid tarmac that stuck to our wheels or was thrown into our faces by passing cars.

Small Blue Planet Post Dorset Roads

Dorset roads. Patches of newly laid tarmac were melting

Small Blue Planet Post Pub Sign

Pubs quenched our thirst of course.

In Devon we were met with cooler temperatures…..

Small Blue Planet Post Devon Lanes

Devon lanes

and sustenance in the form of clotted cream teas….

Small Blue Planet Post Cream Teas

Devon cream tea

What more could you ask for?

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Fields of Lavender

‘To make a perfume, take some rose water and wash your hands in it, then take a lavender flower and rub it with your palms, and you will achieve the desired effect.’Leonardo da Vinci

Lavender rows, photo by Scott

…..or if you want to just inhale the gorgeous scent of lavender rub some of the flowers between your palms then inhale through your nose and breathe out of your mouth. That way you’ll not only smell it but taste it. It’s subtle, and delicious.

We’ve visited Sacred Mountain Lavender farm on Salt Spring Island, one of the Gulf Islands in the Georgia Strait, several times over the last couple of years but this is the first time we’ve actually managed to catch the flowers in full bloom. It was a baking hot day; we smelt the lavender before the turnoff for the organic farm after a sweaty bike ride up a steep and curving road.

Lavender Fields

Lavender in full bloom

The fields were fairly buzzing with bees as we wandered around the lower and higher fields, comparing the differing types of lavender.

Norfolk variety

I asked if we could have a look inside the drying room; Sacred Lavender creates its own products, including lavender oils, soaps, teas and ice creams.

Drying lavender

It was an idyllic way to spend an afternoon, wandering amongst flowers, birds and bees, eating lavender chocolate and ice cream bought from the farm store.

photo by Scott

‘The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration’Claude Monet

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