Under the walnut tree

Walnut tree

The walnut tree

The dusk descended quite quickly, it was after all already Labour Day when we booted it out to the Okanagan for two nights camping. As the sun dipped low, the trees became silhouetted on the ridges of the nearby hills. We stood up from our chairs under the expansive walnut tree, where the sun had only a short time before filtered through the canopy of leaves overhead, to watch the darkening sky.

Setting sun

Setting sun

The sound of intermittent honks drifted across to us and we spotted long V formations of Sandhill Cranes emerge from the valley below. The migrating birds rose higher into the sky, headed south for the winter along their usual route over the White Lake area. As we watched, a murmuration of starlings, their chattering almost drowning out the honks and bugles of the cranes, flew as one from the nearby electricity pylons, to the riparian marsh down the hill and up again to a single tree, turning it’s spikey outline into a fluttering mass of wings, like so many waving handkerchiefs.

It’s amazing how much wildlife can thrive when given some space to do so. And how nourishing it is to just sit under a tree and listen and watch events unfold. We had a tent set up in a nearby campground but were visiting our friend who lived on a slight rise overlooking a small valley, and we sipped beer and wine as we caught up on news whilst a slight breeze rustled around us.

Hot during the day (a last blast of summer!) and still warm at night, we drove back after the sun had set to our campground. The chorus of crickets didn’t diminish until the early hours and sometime during the night I heard some howling and yipping – coyotes? – and what I think was probably a screech owl, and the nighthawks calling. It was the clear night I’d been looking for; out of the corner of my eye I saw two meteors and gazed at the hazy light of the Milky Way. Full of stars we finally crawled into the cosiness of our tiny tent, burrowing deep into the sleeping bags.

We woke to the curious ‘Chi-ca-go’ early morning call of the California Quail that bobbed and weaved through the campground, occasionally plumping down for a quick dust bath, and noted some small dusty footprints on the car windshield. Apparently some racoons had been playing around during the night. We sipped coffee and wandered over to the river behind our site and watched the whirl and eddies of water along the riverbank.

Okanagan River

River alongside the campground

Mount Kobau

Mount Kobau, and the remnants of wildfires.

It was too hot to ride, so we wandered off on a slow-paced exploration of Mount Kobau, part of the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected area, scoping it out for future mountain bike rides. We startled a large, glossy black bear that disappeared abruptly down a steep treed embankment with barely a rustle of leaves. Later, we swam in Skaha Lake, picking up a few odd pieces of garbage that we deposited in the garbage can, and from the campground in the afternoon watched as ominous clouds gathered over the hills. The promise of a change in the weather was fulfilled that night as great cracks of thunder sounded above us and flashes of lightning pierced the thin fabric of the tent, so bright that it seemed as if a torch was pointed straight at our eyes. Rain pounded down, and still the crickets chirped on.

We emerged from the tent the next morning to a freshly rinsed sky and tangy air, shafts of sunlight playing across the river where clouds of winged insects hovered just above the surface. Sipping on the last of our camp coffee (the best kind of java), we lingered as long as possible before packing up and heading home, stopping briefly by Mahoney Lake to walk in the woods and breathe in the pine-scented air, completing a short but full break from the city; a couple of days where nothing and everything happened.

Mahoney Lake

Mahoney Lake Ecological Reserve

The Trans Canada Trail: testing my mettle.

riding across kinsol trestle bridge

Kinsol Trestle Bridge, spanning the Koksilah River

Mid-July rain pattering against the window, I pick up a pencil and apply myself to the latest drawing. Botanical illustration is something I love and pursue in the spare time I can carve out from work. My legs feel restless however and I realize I’m missing the spin and whirr of pedals, the hum and clatter of wheels and the days where we rode for hours, finally stopping for the day and a hearty meal before passing out and getting up to do it all over again. Not having to think much beyond that was a genuine detox from work, screens of various kinds, information overload in general.

An open valley on the Cowichan Valley Trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail

Open meadows, Trans Canada Trail (Cowichan Valley Trail area)

We’d promised ourselves a relatively local cycle tour. Door to door, on the bikes with no transportation other than a couple of ferry rides. We chose to ride the Trans Canada Trail on Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to Victoria via Lake Cowichan, then back to Vancouver with a side trip to Saltspring Island, roughly 400kms in a little over a week, including several rest/chilling out days.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on a bike. A 75km day on mostly gravel trails is probably equivalent to about 100kms day on tarmac. I developed my first ever saddle sore from hours bouncing around on rough, choppy portions of the trail. Apart from a couple of nights booked in an Airbnb, we camped the rest of the time and in taking all that we deemed necessary – tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, cooking gear, some basic food, copious snacks, clothing for variable weather conditions – we managed to weigh our bikes down an exorbitant amount. In the end we used everything so I felt justified in our choices, if amazed that I could even steer the unwieldy, bucking piece of metal that my bike had become.

Ladysmith

Setting sun over Ladysmith high street

We got lost on the first day on a deserted ridgeline outside of Nanaimo. Abysmal signage – an issue confirmed by other tourists and residents – had led us astray. And hours later, near the end of the day, we found ourselves riding the shoulder on the busy, fast, noisy highway. We finally staggered up a brutally steep hill (a theme that was to recur) to our first overnight stop in Ladysmith as the sun began to sink. I wouldn’t choose to ride from Nanaimo again unless the route was improved, but I’d visit Ladysmith again without hesitation; a delightful small town, unspoilt, quiet, stuffed with rose-filled gardens, a pub devotedly English in style and a bakery packed with locals queueing for pastries, birthday cakes and rustic loaves.

freshwater marsh

Freshwater marshes, Cowichan Valley Trail

We fared better on the Cowichan Valley portion of the trail. It’s (mostly) well signed, and obvious, albeit with long, sometimes confusing connecting stretches on roads. A gravel trail generally follows former rail lines, a new kind of riding for me on a regular touring bike with smooth tires. A gradual upward gradient toward Lake Cowichan and the resistance of gravel meant slower speeds, hunkering down to hours of doggedly turning the legs, the sound of our heavy breathing accompanied by the percussive clink and ping, rattle and clatter of loose stones bouncing off our wheel rims. The scent of fir, spruce and cedar emanated from dense stands of trees that hemmed us in on each side of the trail, breaking rank only occasionally to reveal meadow, freshwater marsh and hillside.

Cowichan River

Cowichan River

The subtle downhill slope from Lake Cowichan the following day was our reward for the previous days grind up, gravel, rock and stone giving way to smooth earth at times. A spike of adrenaline spurred on our legs when we heard the trail was favoured by the local bear population, and that Lake Cowichan had experienced an increase in human/mountain lion conflicts as logging invaded yet more of their territory. With many kilometres to cover before we reached Goldstream Campground for the night we stopped only to admire the view from the several bridges we crossed –including the spectacular Kinsol Trestle Bridge – spanning deep gorges the oxide green river water flowed through.

emerging from Malahat Connector

Scott emerges from the Malahat Connector

The joy of moving from one kilometre to another under our own steam, reeling in forest, valleys and mountainsides, couldn’t even be dented by the heinous gradients we encountered at the Malahat Connector in the Malahat Nation or the Sooke Hills Wilderness trail. But as my front wheel skittered sideways on loose shale yet again whilst I pushed my bike up another 20% hill, I wondered why I was doing this to myself. For hours. And hours. Tired, hot, as I planted one foot in front of the other, the answer wasn’t completely available to me then of course. It’s always only later that I fully appreciate the experience.

In the simplest terms, it’s because I’ve been on an adventure, and my legs are ready for another.

riding the Cowichan Valley Trail

Author on the Cowichan Valley Trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail network

 

Discovering new mountain bike trails, Part three: Powell River

Bridge crossing a stream

Cooling stream on a steaming hot day

From the depths of a bottomless sleep, I slowly became aware of Scott’s muffled voice: ‘Are you awake? Can you hear that?’

As I surfaced consciousness, not entirely sure of where I was in the dense darkness of the forested campground, I pulled out my ear plugs (an essential defence against Scott’s snoring) and was immediately assaulted with an almighty cacophony of shouts, screams, singing and laughter.

‘It’s those kids’ I mumbled. I yawned widely.

‘What kids?’

‘The ones in the group campsite, they arrived this afternoon, I mean yesterday’. It was already after midnight.

‘Oh’.

Apparently Scott hadn’t noticed the group after we rode back into the campground after a full day of mountain biking; perplexed by both the level of noise and my unconscious state (I normally wake at the slightest sound) he momentarily wondered if there was some kind of crisis unfolding. That’s probably another reason I love outdoor sports so much, the combination of fresh air and exercise conks me out at night.

For three nights at Haywire Regional campground, tucked way behind Powell River down a forestry road and edged by the refreshing water of Powell Lake, it had been stunningly quiet at night – apart from the whisper of a breeze in the evenings rustling the branches of trees circling each site. But now we were into the weekend and slightly different, unwritten rules applied. Popular with the locals, this was the campground to come to for a family and friends get together. Lots of drinking, music and letting off steam. Nothing got too out of hand though, good-natured (if noisy) fun seemed to predominate. Just go during the week if you want to avoid the party atmosphere, or to the quieter, nearby Inland Lake Provincial campground.

Powell Lake

Powell Lake in the evening light

Powell River on the Sunshine Coast was the third and final new area of mountain biking for us last summer. Now a historic and cultural site – the city sits on the traditional territory of the Tla’ Amin Nation and the pulp and paper mill was once the largest in the world – the area is increasingly a playground for outdoor enthusiasts; some of the trails we were riding around the Duck Lake area had been custom-built for the BC Bike Race.

We already felt spoilt with our trips to Quadra Island and Cumberland and weren’t necessarily planning another break, but I shifted things around a bit at work and we headed out for a few days mid August. Not the smartest move; a hot and busy time of year and I hadn’t made any campsite reservations. Not sure what we were thinking really, it was very much a ‘go and see how it works out’ situation, if we had to we’d just come home. In a way, it was a choice made out of desperation; as the smoke from wildfires rolled in yet again, I obsessively looked up the air quality index to see where we might escape to and Powell River on the Sunshine Coast popped up. Two ferry rides away and some driving to be sure, but not that great a distance from Vancouver. Surely they’d have smoke too? And by the end of our visit they did, but not before we got in some gorgeous cross-country riding for five or so days. We had no problem bagging a camping spot either. Lucky.

And it was gorgeous; long, winding trails snaking through forest – aromatic with the scent of fir and pine. Sporadically the trails flirted here and there with the shores of Mud, Stewart, Haslam or Duck Lake. Every route seemed brilliantly maintained, obviously ridden a lot, but we barely saw a soul.

MTB trails, Duck Lake area

Scott, Duck Lake area

Map of Duck Lake trails

Map of Duck Lake trails

Each day we barrelled down gravelled roads towards Duck Lake, parked and picked our route. It was hot, but the forest protected us. We rode for hours, exploring the myriad byways. When we started to overheat, we sloshed water over our heads from streams and sat in the shade, guzzling the copious amounts of water we’d brought with us. And in the evenings back at the campground we threw ourselves into Powell Lake. A forested path close to the tent led us out to a smaller, less busy beach. Around dinner time it was often deserted and we lingered as the sun slid away, picking our way back by torchlight to our campsite for a glass of wine and hastily thrown together meal.

Mini waterfall

Mini waterfall

MTB trails, Powell River

Me taking a snap of trail signs

How does it go? Eat, sleep, ride, repeat? Check.

Discovering new mountain bike trails, part two: Cumberland, British Columbia

Mountain biking Cumberland, BC

Taking a breather, Cumberland, BC

After three days of a rural retreat on Quadra Island in July, we headed for another mountain bike hub, Cumberland, the self-styled ‘village in the forest’ nestled in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. We were booked in for three nights at a local airbnb, a cute self-contained apartment with a full kitchen – so saving us a ton of dough cooking our own food – and oh joy, a washer and dryer; sweaty, rank bike gear no more!

I hadn’t realized exactly how close to the trail system we’d be. A step out of the door from the converted attic above a nice family home, one, two, three turns of the pedals, a couple of moments coasting down the road on a gentle incline and we were suddenly in the woods and starting up a forestry road. No driving to a trailhead, no fighting traffic, no muss no fuss.

The trails in Cumberland are excellent; well-maintained, clearly marked, extensive, fun and challenging when you want. Thanks to the efforts of the local bike club, the United Riders of Cumberland, the agreements they hold with private landowners have allowed the development and maintenance of a vast network of trails in a working forest. Additionally, the Cumberland Community Forest Society has over the last few years been raising funds to buy parcels of forest adjacent to the town and in the process are protecting an important ecological, recreational and historical area.

BC BC Bike Race, Cumberland, BC

BC Bike Race

Cumberland attracts riders from around the world. The last day of our visit the town hosted the second stage of the BC Bike Race, ‘the world’s best mountain bike race’ ~ Outside Magazine. The race next year is already sold out. We watched as over six hundred riders shot past our airbnb into the woods early in the morning, the spin of so many wheels buzzing like a vast hive of bees. The local sports field was a sea of red tents set up for the riders that night, and were just as suddenly gone the next day, on to another stage of the race in another town.

MTB trails, Cumberland, BC

Scott, Cumberland

Bike races aside, for all its popularity as a mountain biking destination once we’d ridden up the forestry road and veered off on the first of many trails we saw at most a handful of riders each day. On the second day dark clouds hove into view as a deep rumble of thunder sounded. Despite its throat clearing the sky spared us all but a spattering of rain and lightning. We traversed a web of trails that led us up into great swathes of logged, open land; stumps and replanting abounded instead of thick forest. At other times we were led back into gorgeous woods that had been temporarily spared the chainsaw or were soon to be felled, judging by the brightly coloured plastic ribbon that adorned them.

I’m conflicted about the areas we rode in. The trails are brilliant: loamy, rocky, rooty, flowy, techy, take your pick. But the cleared areas jarred. The forest society notes on their website that all unprotected forest is to be logged. Replanting can’t hide the evidence of chainsaws at work (at this point of the growth cycle anyway). Where new growth reached just over our heads, it was easier to deny the logging – the inevitable out of sight, out of mind.

In a way Cumberland is a lesson in survival and evolution (I highly recommend a visit to the Cumberland Museum and Archives, we learnt a lot in a couple of hours one afternoon). With the discovery of coal in the 1800’s, Union, as the town was once called after the Union Coal Mining Company, grew rapidly, swelled by the arrival of Chinese and to a lesser extent, Japanese, immigrants to work the mines in harsh and dangerous conditions. As coal production gradually declined followed by the depression and WWII, many Chinese returned home whilst the Japanese endured forced internment during the war years. Chinatown and Japanese Town were dismantled. Logging replaced coal mining as the primary industry. Bolstered by the conviction that the forest is now worth more standing than felled, the community is ushering in a new economy. It’s nice that mountain biking is a vital part of this latest growth; Cumberland, with its artsy, craft beer, music, outdoor enthusiasts scene will have fully evolved once again.

We’ll be back.

Vanilla MTB trail, Cumberland

GoPro screen capture from Scott of Vanilla MTB, Cumberland. Flowy, bermy, fun!

 

Discovering new mountain bike trails, part one: Quadra Island, British Columbia

Sunset, Quadra Island, BC

Rain giving way to the setting sun, Quadra Island.

Cool days, finally some sun after a damp start to the autumn. Looking back it’s been a good summer of exploring in our backyard. Travel abroad is great but there’s a lot to be said for staying local. It’s cheaper for one. Usually there’s less preparation. Hopefully less stress. And in this region there’s some excellent mountain biking nearby – it’s been fun discovering new areas to ride.

We unexpectedly returned to Quadra Island for three days in early July – courtesy of good friends living part-time on the island in a lovely rustic cabin. We explored mountain bike routes so stealth that if we hadn’t our friend as guide we never would have found them. We rode both unsanctioned trails (meaning not necessarily maintained) but also official trails, like the excellent Little Black Dress.

I could count the number of other riders we met on one hand. Quiet woods, gorgeous lakes – my first swim of the year in Morte Lake was sublime.

Morte Lake, Quadra Island

Morte Lake

It was stellar weather, long before any hint of wildfire smoke destined to hit the region later in the summer, although hot enough that we had to rest in the shade of a tree after toiling up a steep rock and root strewn route that levelled out to a quiet, relatively smooth plateau of loamy, compliant trails.

Trails, Quadra Island

Barely there trails winding into the woods

Pretty good sunsets too.

Twilight, Quadra Island

Twilight, Quadra Island

A Night on Galiano Island

Montague Harbour

Montague Harbour

‘Oi, get out of here!’

The bandit-eyed raccoon glanced at me and scuttled back down from the trunk of the tree where he had been clinging upside down as he pulled in a food bag towards him with one paw and chewed heartily on one nylon corner with sharp yellow teeth. The owner of the bag hadn’t noticed the stealthy raid until I yelled out; taking down the bag she let out an exasperated sigh.

‘He got the chocolate! And it was a new bag!’

We helped her string up the bag between another two trees, further apart this time and out of the raccoon’s cheeky reach.

For the first time we’d brought dried food with us, an experiment in keeping our panniers lighter. Honestly, it didn’t taste great, at all, but serendipitously might have been the best choice. Nothing to tempt the palette of an abundant number of thieves lurking in the undergrowth. Later that night I heard a thump and pitter patter as a furry visitor levered itself up on our tent pad, sniffing around the tent and our panniers that we kept close by under the fly. Another thump as the raccoon dropped off back onto the ground, unimpressed by our dietary choice.

Tent at Montague Harbour

Before the arrival of the heat wave that has enveloped us lately here along the west coast of British Columbia, we packed up the bikes and took off for one night of camping on Galiano, a narrow tree-covered strip of land that makes up one of the Southern Gulf Islands. From the sparsely populated island you might be lucky to spot orcas, seals, otters or sea lions. A major migratory route for birds, the island was bursting with bird life and song, a treat I hadn’t anticipated.

One stop away on the ferry from the mainland meant for a refreshingly short commute. There was a particularly relaxed air on the boat; travelling on a Tuesday meant we were keeping company with a small number of hikers, other cyclists and residents who were returning to the island after an extended weekend visit to the mainland.

Rolling hills define the islands, and it was an undulating eight or so kilometer ride to Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park where we set up our tent for the night on one of the plentiful tent pads dotted throughout the park, with idyllic views across the quiet harbour inlet.

Sailboats, Montague Harbour

Sailboats at anchor

A wander along a winding path skirting the campground led us out to Shell Beach, once a midden for Indigenous groups thousands of years ago. A tall ship was at anchor and intriguingly three row boats laden with people were leaving from the side of the ship and making their way to the shore. We watched, almost apprehensively, as the boats slowly drew in. Who could this be? Turned out to be a large, enthusiastic group of children on a trip who would be camping that night on shore.

Tall Ship

Tall Ship off Shell Beach

Shell Beach

Shell Beach, worn shells instead of sand

The night was as peaceful as I could’ve wished, no traffic, super quiet campground. The sound of kids singing around the campfire gradually died down to be replaced by that of Nighthawks. Incredible birds that create a booming sound as they dive whilst they hunt and display for mates. If you’ve never heard them then check out this short video. It’s a pretty impressive sound from a small bird.

It doesn’t take much to make for a perfect mini-break.

Montague Harbour

Peaceful Montague Harbour

Our daily impact on the planet

What can we do to lessen the detrimental impact of our consumer based lives on this small blue planet hurtling through space, our sole source of nourishment and life?

It seems like a reasonable question to ask on Earth Day and one I’m almost constantly pondering lately. It’s basically a rabbit hole. The more you look, the deeper you go, the more there is to do, or undo. It’s overwhelming, but it seems pretty clear that we don’t really have a choice. I love to explore new places, but what’s the environmental cost of that indulgence? I appreciate two skiers/filmmakers who attempt to confront the question in this thought-provoking short film:

Another huge issue: plastic. As if large plastics in oceans, rivers and streams choking the wildlife weren’t bad enough (bottles, nets, toys etc) disturbing studies also reveal high levels of plastic microfibers, including in our drinking water. As it turns out my good ol’ fleece jacket  – which keeps me warm on cold nights sitting by a campfire as I listen to the wind in the trees – sheds a significant amount of microfiber each time I wash it. I’ve bought a Guppyfriend bag in an effort to address this problem, use only cold water and less detergent (mitigating the wear on fabric) and wash my synthetics less often – but that’s only a tiny part of the solution. I look for fair-trade, pesticide-free, natural fiber clothing, but apart from a few select suppliers and stores – which are often quite expensive – it isn’t always that easy, for now at any rate. I think I may have to learn to knit.

Back to the bigger plastics, such as packaging. We’ve been sourcing stores and markets where we can refill our containers. This has been somewhat successful as we haven’t bought bags or containers of rice, oats, flour, body lotion and laundry soap for a few weeks now. We’ve bought glass jars for dried food and have been using the original containers for laundry, dish soap and body lotion – at least it delays recycling the containers for longer.

I’m not sure how much good I’m doing, it feels like a drop in the ocean – so to speak – but you have to start somewhere.

Time we planted a tree.

Happy Earth Day.

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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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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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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