It’s becoming a bit of a family tradition. Piling the car high and driving northwards for our summer holidays. Usually to Mull, for a family holiday in and around the islands off the North West coast of Scotland. With a few detours on route, this year via the Northumbrian coast.
The holiday and the journey have become a bit of a ‘yardstick’, a marker against which we measure the year - a mid-point where it’s possible to glimpse just far enough forwards and back to take stock of another years temporal changes and what might lie ahead.
And perhaps the islands are a useful tool for this. Although they’re a permanent fixture for the people and animals who inhabit them, for us the islands are a temporary respite, a fleeting viewfinder that helps us see more clearly. There’s a liminal quality to our visits, not permanent but through repeated stays more than just temporary.
Earlier in the week someone asked me if I was enjoying my time in the mountains “in spite of the weather” - as if somehow the wind, rain, snow and (occasional) sunshine were somehow separate entities from the Alps themselves.
The sun hasn’t shone everyday, and the reality of bringing two small children on a snowboarding trip has meant that there hasn’t been a huge amount of actual boarding.
In the pockets of time in between (ski school, getting children back to sleep, sneaking off to grab a late lift) - it’s easy to see that it’s a great time to be in the Alps.
The season is turning, little streams opening back up, small birds flitting between the trees on the lower slopes. A feeling that another winter has been marked off and observed. And as a family the trips at this time of year are becoming our own way of marking the end of winter. The point where we start to move our horizon beyond the next few weeks and to start to think about the spring and summer that lie ahead.
It’s that time of the year when you look up and realise that summer has all but slipped away. There is a mist over the fields in the morning, and although still mild the heat has gone out of the middle of the day. But it’s still just about summer. A ‘quarter season’. A liminal time.
There are a lot of small rituals and signs associated with the coming of autumn and I have my own list of minor indicators that provide a coda to another summer: the end of the cricket season, preparing my commuting bike for the damp mornings ahead and a family walk out along the edge of the village collecting blackberries (and sloes).
There’s been some bigger changes too over recent week: a new niece, a new start for Violet and maybe for Emma as well. Everything the same, constant change.
Inspired by the idea that temporal landmarks are important, it feels like these familial rituals need more space and emphasis. The sloes are already in the gin, waiting for another occasion to mark.
Yorkshire. Huge crowds. Good weather. Great riding. Good company and a long ride.
For the many British pro-riders who didn’t make the tour (or those that did and then didn’tget past the first week), the 2014 Tour de France is probably one to forget. But for British based cycling fans the 101st edition will stay long in the memory.
Just over a decade ago I went on my first snowboarding trip with a group of friends - a lads week away. I didn’t really know what to expect - I’d never been to the alps (or any other major mountain range outside of the UK). In the back of my mind it was the start of some cool, extreme sports based adventure of jumping off enormous kickers, getting lost in powder fields followed by some serious partying.
Fast forward to the present and I’m sat in a chalet next to a baby monitor whilst the rest of family are off to catch a late lift to ski school.
Over the years I’ve realised that the thing I love about going boarding isn’t booting it over enormous jumps or dancing on the bar (though those things are pretty good), but just being out in the mountains. Nothing beats a day when the snow is good and the sun is out, cruising along with a view of some far off peak and no agenda except making sure you enjoy yourself.
Which is why we are here, dashing late to ski school, dragging a pushchair up to nearly 2000m and sledging in the afternoons. Not because skiing is an essential skill for the girls to learn, but because a love of the mountains and having fun is something that’s worth passing on.
Heavy skies, grey and laden with snow. Snow that falls slowly, dampening sounds and flattening perspective. A tramp across the fields, heavy work, snow crunching underfoot - the percussive sounds of winter.
The world seems asleep, but no less beautiful for it. In the fields beyond the pub at the end of the village (where the windmill used to be), there’s little sign of life - just some abandoned old pieces of farm machinery, a couple of very territorial robins and footprints leading out across the fields.
The mud is heavy, claggy. A steady squelch underfoot. The three of us exploring a little woodland that my wife knows well. We are a running late and the light is fading a little already. The small glades off the main path are carpeted with bright red and orange leaves (and an amazing array of fungus).
Autumn colours in full force.
Back on the path we pick our way through the mud until we find a better path. Violet skipping along until we get back to the car just before dusk.
From the top of Ivinghoe Beacon there’s a path that leads along the top of the ridge and into the woods on the Ashridge Estate. It’s a managed woodland, but part of the joy of walk though here is that it’s not overly managed. Clumps of fallen timber and rotting leaves sit under the broad leaf canopy, making it a haven for all kinds of plants, wildlife and hurtling children.