I've always been interested in boats without actually spending much time on the water. Born by the seaside, my dad had worked in the customs on the Humber. I had plenty of childhood stories of jumping from ship to ship on rummage crews. As a child I devoured Swallows & Amazons, reading the series again and again. But apart from the occasional ferry to Arran I didn't really spend much time afloat.
I did convince my parents to let me try some dinghy sailing. But the romance of sailing wore off in the cold of a Sunday morning on Hollingworth Lake. I was clearly destined to be a landlubber.
Years later, I managed to spend some time commuting along the Thames by the underused river boat service. From Greenwich to Charing Cross on the clipper. Then if the connection ran to time you could transfer to a small boat down to Chelsea. This seemed like a hidden service. A chap called Peter at the helm who seemed to be straight out of a Graham Greene novel. He'd tell you about what was "app-nin on the river" or ignore you as the small boat nipped along the grey Thames.
A few years ago we moved to rural Northamptonshire. As far from the sea as it's possible to live in the UK. At first glance without much in the way of waterways to need anything more than a pair of wellies to navigate by. Firmly landlubber territory.
However, on our annual trips to Scotland I started to do some sea kayaking. Inspired at first by Nick Ray in Tobermory. Then with the family paddling round Castlebay. I rediscovered the quiet joy of travelling under my own steam by Kayak.
Like most people our horizons have been a little closer to home in 2020. We've managed to keep this going on the more sedate waters of the Nene and The Broads. The odd bit of portage aside it's a pretty relaxing way to spend a day as a family. It opens up the landscape and wildlife in it's own unique way.
At the moment it’s not possible to get away so we’ve reverted to make believe adventures and camping in the garden. And somehow it works. Not a substitute for a real night under canvas, but it turns out some of the effects are the same.
As night falls and we hunker down in the sleeping bags, the sounds of the village seem amplified. The owls in the trees down by the old fish ponds sound like they are perched on the guy ropes. At one point in the night I’m convinced there’s a pair of foxes in the porch of the tent. Then in the morning as the dark fades the cacophony of the dawn chorus jolts us awake. We wriggle and turn, then drift back off to sleep in the warming tent.
Over breakfast thoughts turn to some of our favourite camping spots. That one on Barra that overlooks the perfect hebridean beach. The one with the wild horses in the new forest. I remember some of the places I’ve pitched a tent. From the top of alpine climbs to midge infested sites by the lake at Coniston.
There’s something about a night in a tent. No matter how broken the sleep, it slows you down and gives you a different perspective. I only wish we’d chosen a warmer weekend to get started this year.
Over the last few years, the view over the fields behind our house has become increasingly important to me. The back fields.
It is in many ways an unremarkable view. Looking out across flat fields of pasture. A power line, a few hedges and trees. Sometimes there’s sheep but more often the fields are empty. In the distance, on a clear day, a glimpse of the Chiltern Hills. Mentmore, the Beacon at Ivinghoe and beyond. There’s certainly more dramatic views.
Sometimes there is a red kite or a green woodpecker. Today it was a pheasant. But more often it’s a small flock of starlings or sparrows that provide the avian entertainment. In the summer months there are swallows. There’s owls as well, but despite my best efforts I haven’t seen them, only heard their cries on the wind.
I’ve been collecting the sunrises over the fields. Which I suppose is also a way of collecting the sky. Big and open here in North Bucks. Soon the sky might be the only thing still visible to us if the plan to turn the fields into houses is approved.
I think of it as my view, though it’s not mine, I’m just an observer. An onlooker. Not a participant. The flocks of sparrows and starlings don’t object to planning applications, though I’m sure they would given the chance.
3 years ago moved into our little cottage. A new family with a new baby and a lot of work ahead of us. It had taken a few months to make the place even liveable.
A lot has changed since then, a wedding, another baby and an awful lot of hours spent fixing, painting, sanding and generally finagling a previously neglected old house.
We’ve had so much help from family, friends and neighbours that it almost seems like a betrayal of their efforts to be moving on. But moving we are, to another part of the same village. One thing we have learnt is that Stewkley, Bucks feels very much like home.
Over the last few weeks, dusk has been falling noticeably earlier, and as I’ve been riding home, up to the village, there are lights moving across the fields. Farmers working late to bring in the harvest. Later after I’m home and hosed, the combine harvesters noisily edge past our front door, heading back to the farms on the other side of the village.
Today I spent some time working at the allotment, putting the effort in now for next year, preparing the ground. Sometimes you need to do some prep’ and think of the future. Maybe this is the right time of year for making plans.
The house is over 100 years old, a simple working cottage that has been battered, fixed up and repaired throughout it’s life (with varying amounts of competence and success). And now it’s our turn, taking back the layers of one of the rooms to the horse hair plaster. A week in a room. Sanding, filling, fixing and painting. Hands cracked and sore with paint under my nails. It’s not finished. It never is, but it’s more finished than it was before. Incremental changes.
An increasingly digital world means that change is often accelerated and effort is mental, an ever more complex brain teaser of optimisation and Moore’s Law style improvements. The physical efforts and calluses from my week of ‘home work’ are difficult in a different way. The rewards slower.
Sometimes it’s not about getting away into the wilds, but about just getting round the corner. Near the cottage there’s a little lane, which turns into a wet path that’s more of a muddy stream at this time of year. If you go over the narrow bridge there’s all kinds of mushrooms. And it’s as relaxing a place as you could want to be.