The Mountains’ Curse

I’m really chuffed to have a piece featured on Trail Magazine’s ‘Mountains for the Mind’ campaign website. Mountains and moors are vital to my mental wellbeing but there have been times when pushing myself to get outside more has backfired.

Here’s the link to a pretty honest piece about my experiences:

https://www.mountainsforthemind.co.uk/stories/2019/5/3/emily-ellis-41

I was lucky and fatigue doesn’t stop me in my tracks so much now. But to write a piece about what happens when your therapy suddenly isn’t available, then magically recover without acknowledging that not everybody can, would have defied the point. This is the final section of the Trail piece:

Accessibility, inclusivity and mental health

There are many ways to love the mountains. While most Trail readers will understand the lure of the summit, any of us could be affected at any time by temporary, permanent, mental or physical illness or injury; as well as other constraints such as geography, poverty, family, gender or culture.

Inclusivity is a fundamental part of mental health, and while this piece features a recovery, not all people do. For anyone who can’t get out of the house much, or at all, for any reason, promotion of the outdoors as a cure of sorts can, understandably, actually contribute to poor mental health; especially when no alternative options are promoted alongside it. Disabled access to the outdoors is greatly improving, but the term ‘disabled access’ itself may be misinterpreted only as access for people who can’t walk.

Chronic fatigue and related illnesses don’t always have ‘fixable’ emotional roots. Hidden illnesses or disabilities can affect the body and mind in a myriad of ways, informing how people prefer to interact with nature, of which there is so much more than only that which must be accessed on bike or foot. As part of important campaigns like Mountains for the Mind which are doing a great job of getting mental health out in the open, it would be great to hear stories from people who have found alternative ways of enjoying the landscape – or ways to look after themselves when they can’t.

Here are some links to websites and writers you might find interesting. It’s just a fledgling list at the moment, but please share more in the comments and I will endeavour to add them to the list!

Polly Atkin

Polly is a nature writer, poet and wild swimmer from the Lake District. She has Ehlers Danlos syndrome and genetic haemochromatosis, affecting balance, energy and mobility. She’s currently working on a book exploring the relationship between nature, chronic illness and disability, and the myth of the ‘Nature Cure’.

http://www.pollyatkin.com

Katrina Megget

Katrina Megget is an adventure travel and health journalist who recently called off her epic 3,000km walk across New Zealand due to injury. Read her blog about injury, self-doubt and (non!)failure here:

Why pushing pause on #WalkNZ doesn’t make me a failure

Debbie North – The Outdoor Guide

Debbie North is the ambassador and director of AccessTOG, the mobility arm of Julia Bradbury’s The Outdoor Guide, promoting wheel-friendly off-road adventures for pushchairs, wheelchairs and bikes.

https://theoutdoorguide.co.uk/tog-friends/mobility-access-tog/

Amar Latif – Traveleyes

Amar Latif is a blind TV presenter and traveller whose most recent programmes have featured outdoor adventure and travel experiences focusing on all sensory perceptions. He founded Traveleyes, a travel and adventure company pairing visually impaired guests with sighted guides.

Amar Latif

Disabled Ramblers

The Disabled Ramblers campaign for more access and run organised mobility scooter rambles around England and Wales.

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Winter is Coming: Part Two

(Read Part One here)

We talk about the youth of today being ‘so woke’ and oversensitive, but we don’t half get defensive when they criticise us. I wonder what we’re so scared of?

I know part of the reason that attacks on rural lifestyles upset me is that they feel like an attack on my very identity, and that’s tough. That’s the kind of thing that triggers the anxiety I talk about. One of the things which makes me feel like the fabled millennial snowflake. Does the fact I’m marginally older than that give me the right to suffer anxiety? Does my extra life experience validate the fatigue which makes me more of a four-day-a-week worker than a 24/7 farmer? Does my indefinable sexuality make me indecisive and wishy-washy, or strong enough to transcend labels?

I so often think I need to man (or woman) up, and that it is simply my perceived problem; I worry that I’m missing a bigger environmental or moral picture because I’m so busy taking attitudes towards my own community so personally. But I don’t think I am missing a bigger picture. Perhaps I might be at the mercy of my own feelings sometimes, but in that respect I’m part of a bigger picture.

I believe it’s the differences between rural and other stereotypes which actually provide our common ground. The mental health implications of being lumped in with a generalised stereotype, where it’s inevitably the negative implications of that stereotype which the public recognise, form a huge part of that common ground.

I suffer from poor mental well-being when I’m tired, and I think if I communicate my anxieties I am being weak. I can only imagine what it’s like being at work around the clock and having all the expectations and pressures of farming or other rural land management occupations thrown at me constantly (not to mention the ‘added extras’ of, say, a summer of drought leaving my animals devoid of food, or having my moorland livelihood burnt to shreds then being blamed for it).

The agricultural industry has one of the highest suicide rates in the UK. The picture amongst gamekeepers isn’t great either, because how can you talk to someone about it, when that very act could revoke your firearms licence and your livelihood? And it’s all wrapped up in isolation, obscene working hours, and all manner of other pressures that come with managing the land and which keep increasing year on year. Pressures that include the media’s reinforcement of the stereotypes that dictate what being a farmer or a gamekeeper says about you as a person.

Living in a beautiful place might stave off the claustrophobia of a city, but it’s still tough – and the stats show it. Depression, stress and anxiety are universal – whether you’re a townie teen or a rural macho man.

The tried and tested best thing to do when our mental well-being is suffering is to talk about it.

That’s what the so-called ‘millennial snowflakes’ and ‘woke’ Gen Z’s are doing.

These labels are just as stereotypical as bloodthirsty gamekeepers and ‘get orf my land’ farmers are. I believe it’s always worth a spot of empathy, before denouncing the pointlessness of someone’s anxieties.

As an example, imagine one of your best mates is gay, but the odd limp-wristed joke down the pub is OK, because you know you’re not homophobic and you don’t mean anything by it, and they always laugh along anyway. And if they’re not there, it’s definitely not hurting anyone.

My first question is how you know nobody else in the room is on the LGBT spectrum? I’m not sure I would come out in those circumstances. Someone’s comments may not appear (or be intended) to display explicit homophobia, but that’s often the bigger problem. Those subtle undertones – the uncertainty they inspire, the ‘what ifs’: what if they actually believe that, what if it’s not a joke? what if my family feel the same way? – are almost more scary, because you never quite know where you stand.

I’d like to ask you to put yourself in your friend’s shoes and wonder whether you’d tell your mates you weren’t happy with their banter. To weigh up the risk of alienating yourself further in a part of the world that’s already literally and socially isolated. From a personal perspective, I’ve spent much of my life grinning and bearing it rather than risk creating tension. Perhaps I could take myself less seriously, but being oppressed (by others or by yourself) catches up with you eventually. Pile anything up on someone (or yourself) for long enough – even feathers – and chances are they will eventually collapse under its weight, whether they let on to you or not.

So, what’s the best solution to prevent that happening?

Talk about it.

A problem shared is a problem halved, and a culture that allows you to do so is a lifesaver.

It’s not complaining. It’s not playing the victim or attention-seeking. It’s finding a way to deal with the pressure society throws at us. It’s refusing to be driven out (even when the ‘drivers’ are unaware they’re doing it) of a place you love because people like you are seen as being ‘other’. It’s not that they weren’t already there or wouldn’t love to be there. They’ve just left, or stayed away.

Rural communities have far more in common with the snowflake culture we are so quick to criticise than we realise. And, perhaps, just maybe, we could learn something from them before parading our disdain in order to generate maximum hardcore points from our mates.

Sometimes we think millennials and Generation Z don’t know they’re born. They don’t have to face the same challenges us rural folk do, with our nonexistent public transport, extortionate fuel bills, self-sufficiency, harsh outdoor jobs, and a vastly underrepresented voice in politics and society.

But they do face the same challenges. The phenomenon of rural kids leaving because house prices have been driven up by ‘townies’ and second homes is not a rural phenomenon. Nobody can buy a house nowadays without a stormingly well paid job or parents with a spare ten-grand-plus just lying around. Most of us have neither. And when I say ‘house’, we’re really starting with the shittiest of shitty bedsits in the middle of a shitty city. I’ve lived in shitty cities, and I would take any manner of rural isolation over that kind of soul destruction.

Fears that austerity will never end and that we’ll all be doomed by climate change are very real. We all fear for our futures, and that of our families. Can we really blame the younger generation, with so many years ahead of them, for feeling this the most keenly? For many young people, that fear has been a reality for ages. I certainly don’t blame them for speaking up about it instead of trying to man up and pretend the anxiety doesn’t exist. Is it any surprise that these deeper anxieties can spill out into the smaller stuff?

Young people are just that – young. We all make mistakes, and in our youth, of course things seem bigger than they are. I’m embarrassed about things I thought were a big deal when I was young. I was naive, but I learnt.

Now, I’m not offended if somebody mislabels me: I can’t even label myself. I don’t expect them to know what’s PC and what isn’t, or to understand the myriad of feelings I can never share, just as I will never know how it feels to be from an ethnic minority, or have awareness of all the cultural connotations that sit behind various words and phrases. Likewise, I don’t expect people to be scared of saying the wrong thing around me. If you don’t know, ask. If you get it really wrong, maybe I’ll say so. But if I can see it’s unintentional, I’m not going to attack you for something nobody’s told you, so I don’t expect defensiveness in return. OK, so some people are more assertive than me about this and will challenge you more heavily because they feel (quite rightly) that their voice is drowned out by the mainstream. But how much of the way they live their life is actually hurting you? What part of being educated scares you so much that you have to fight back, instead of just listening and learning?

I said in Part One that when shit gets tough, those icy crystals come into their own. Yes, millennials and Generation Z might be sensitive. Yes, they might struggle to communicate their anxieties in a way that achieves our (completely unrequired) approval. But they know they can talk about it. And when the shit really hits the fan, when politics, or climate, or poverty, or whatever, screws us the hell over and they are left sorting our whole stinking mess out to create a better future, at least they have one of the most fundamental tools to deal with it nailed. They know how to talk about it.

Sometimes, they get it wrong; they overreact, overanalyse, and pick the wrong battles. They’re a different generation, facing different challenges, and it’ll take a bit of time to find their place in the world.

But do you really feel so threatened by the ‘woke’ generation?

Man up, you fucking snowflake.

Winter is Coming: Part One

The thing about snowflakes is that when shit gets tough, they thrive.

We had a nice summer. Our cold bones for once radiated warmth and for many of us, life was easy. The security of sunshine, and of knowing tomorrow would be OK.

But winter is coming, and tomorrow may not be OK. As our world ices over and impending uncertainty forces widespread survival mode, one thing is for sure: that’s when those tiny ice formations come into their own.

Because the other thing about snowflakes is they are beautiful, and every single one is different. They may wilt quickly when the temperature rises; but they can’t be everything to everyone at all times, I’m sure. They might struggle when conditions aren’t perfect; but I think I, also, would keep as much energy in reserve as I could for when it was really needed. And how can I begrudge that when, ultimately, I know it will be down to those tiny, individual, ephemeral flakes of snow, those sublime natural masterpieces, to come together and transform our world into a thing of such absolute beauty that it makes the long, dark winter worth enduring.

Please don’t use my words as your weapon.

When I posted my last blog, I did so with trepidation. I thought it would either be ignored completely, or that I’d be ripped apart for being such a wuss. Poor little snowflake can’t handle a bit of offence. The no-nonsense inner voice I try so hard to leave behind – but which I know comes from that macho, rural psyche – tells me I am just throwing my toys out of the pram because not everybody likes my way of life.

To my readers’ credit, I was wrong. Comments saying my words had caused people to stop and think made my day. But something was bugging me. In a bid to learn how to accept a compliment, I politely said thank you and followed people back, but a tiny minority were the same people I expected to set a match under my fragile skin.

The same people who were happy to use my notion of prejudice as a defence, then continued to attack others whose lives had no relevance to theirs.

The same people who mock the ‘woke’.

The same people who posted photos of ‘soft’ rainbow jumper-clad pooches in comparison to their own, ‘proper’ dogs.

The same people who were offended at the idea of reducing working hours to four days a week when they were out working 80 hour weeks on the farm, without wondering just how debilitating the depression of being at a desk all day can be. I’ve faced the desk depression too. Imagine you were forced to quit the outdoors and the only lifestyle you’ve ever known for the oppression of the city. Imagine having never known hills and countryside. That’s truly terrifying.

The same people who were in uproar when a university banned clapping in order to welcome more people to their events, with no time to stop and wonder how traumatic loud noises might be for those with partial hearing, autism spectrum disorder or mental health conditions such as anxiety. Why resort to sign language instead of clapping? Well… Why not? Those of us with hidden disabilities or illnesses are not ‘other’, confined to the mysterious confines of the city; we are the same as you, and we are here.

So, I’m here to ask a favour. I’m delighted to have my words shared and it means more than you know; but it is uncomfortable to see them used to validate someone’s own existence of being in a (rural) minority, only to have that gesture immediately negated as the same person uses their lack of understanding of other lifestyles (sexuality, gender identity, race, disability, etc. etc…) as an excuse to slate them in turn. That is also prejudice; and also really bad PR. It reinforces the stereotype that people from rural communities are all out of touch with the ‘real’ world, and not worthy of inclusion in modern politics or society.

But if there’s one thing rural communities have in common with just about everyone else in the world, it’s knowing that it’s not much fun being the subject of a stereotype. Therefore, it’s our differences that provide our most fundamental common ground. So why on earth are we so hell-bent on fighting over them?

~~

Continued in Part Two.

~~

PS. OK! I wrote this in November, hence the title. But the sentiment still stands!

PPS. This is a companion piece to The love that dare not speak its name. Taken together, the two are intended to explore issues of prejudice both within and against rural communities, so please do head on over if you have the time.

The love that dare not speak its name

My name is Emily, and I am a hopeless moorland romantic. The moors are my bedrock, and my natural habitat. But nowadays, it feels, they are the love that dare not speak its name.

They are the landscape that taught me how to love landscape. The world that sang of curlew, plover, lapwing and bog owl. A world alight with heather: lazy waves of summer lilac, flaming autumn sundowns, and glittering pillows of snow. A land of adventure, from knee deep sphagnum bogs to the best views in the world. Remote stone bothies – rest stops for shooters, usually – but such an enticement to the imagination. Meandering stone tracks, photogenic as you like and metaphorical of all manner of journeys. Adders, peregrines, grouse and hardy hill sheep, channelling Mother Nature and man alike. Silver ghosts of quarries and mines, clung to by delicate flora, an industrious past now desolate and sublime. And once, a pair of vintage aircraft, loop-the-looping – unseen, they likely thought – euphoric and free as a bird.

I love the moors. But I’m not allowed to.

Now, if I mention them, someone mentions shooting, even if there is none where I’ve been. Now, I can’t be excited about seeing raptors without someone enforcing pessimism. “That’s nice, but don’t get used to it.” I used to enjoy those moments. The time I laughed out loud at myself for being disappointed when what I thought was a pair of hen harriers turned out to ‘only’ be a gull and a short-eared owl. Those moments of simple delight fed me and drove my love for the outdoors, which I, in turn, feed to others. It takes passion to transfer passion, but as soon as you talk about the moors, someone will insist on drowning the flames in politics. And nothing is destroying my will to keep sharing that passion like people telling me I’m wrong to seek joy in this landscape.

~~~

Enjoying the moors, apparently, equates to condoning brutal murder. Enjoying the moors means I am happy to watch the slaughter of protected species, because the moors as they are would not exist without the ‘need’ to persecute them. And I must clearly be overjoyed to watch our towns and villages flood, by condoning, through my love for this place the way it is, the greedy land drainage caused by gamekeepers to this day for their own end.

You know what I really condone? Acknowledging that these heather moorlands – many protected SSSIs as one of the most rare and rapidly declining habitats in the world – have been sustained by shooting. Perhaps not ideally, but the fact is they’re still here and that’s something we can work with.

I condone the work keepers are doing to block historical drains – many installed due to Government grants to improve agricultural productivity – because they knew all along that these ditches would increase water flow, and they also recognise the results of research which indicates restoring blanket bog can be as beneficial to shooting as burning, but with added environmental benefits, too. Science develops all the time and current keepers’ predecessors did not have all this information at their fingertips.

I congratulate the attitude of the keeper in my local, shaking their head sadly, exclaiming “why would you want to kill a raptor? Live and let live, I say.”

I gladly approve of anything which supports rural incomes and self-sufficiency (because, let’s face it, public transport is not amazing), helps beat the depression of isolation by supporting pubs (and their staff) and provides days out beating which promote exercise, immersion in nature (there is not much more immersive than wading through heather) and one of the best community experiences you can find.

And I condone using the resources available to us to achieve the best result. Public funding is not forthcoming right now. Employing moorland managers from taxpayers’ money will be expensive, and the supposed increase in ‘wildlife tourism’ is a pipe dream, in my opinion. They already come, because the moors are already full of rare species, even if not all the ones you want to see are there yet.

I know the ‘privilege’ of shooting for sport is hard to swallow sometimes, and I’ll gladly have a separate conversation about that, but for as long as the funding for moorland management – even if that management may need review – comes from the pockets of the wealthy who can spare it, then surely conservation can have the last laugh?

The real losers in a blanket ban on driven grouse shooting are not the wealthy “toffs and Tories” who represent the image many have of shooting. They are the local people – pub staff, beaters, hotel cleaners – who, I have to break it to you, are the very epitome of the opposition’s favourite slogan: they are the many, not the few. I am one of the ‘many’. But nobody wants to look closely enough to see this inconvenient truth.

~~~

So there we go. The countryside has fallen victim to politics to the extent that I, at least, struggle to simply enjoy it, and the moors are suffering the most noticeably. In a world where the key indicator of intelligence seems to be finding fault in others – ‘knowing better’ – the skill of pure enjoyment is a rare thing. I’d argue that overcoming cynicism and re-learning how to enjoy the positives is a much harder task involving a far greater strength of character, and can only lead to a much greater ability to collaborate and encourage change instead of generating defensiveness and rebellion.

To draw a parallel also close to my heart: just as persecution of one LGBT person has an impact on all of us – because we are all part of that community – the same feelings of anxiety come out of my having grown up on the edge of a grouse moor and seeing severely uncommendable and inaccurate attacks on people in that community, and even myself. These are attacks on people who often do not fit the stereotypes bandied about by high profile celebrities in the national media, and who cannot now break through the preconceptions formed by said ‘celebrities’, such is the distrust which has been spread. Persecution of raptors is inherently and unforgivably wrong, but so is persecution of people. It’s just harder to see.

I’ve never not been aware of the issues and criticisms surrounding grouse shooting. Strolling among the heather and jumping the ditches in my younger days, I wasn’t naïve, but I still had the capacity to make the best of the natural environment around me and use that to inspire others.

Now, wandering up the lane, everything I see is overshadowed by the latest slagging off of gamekeepers’ tracks (you see eyesore, I see opportunity for increased disabled access to the outdoors); the latest incorrect thing someone has said in front of millions on Springwatch; or a host of species I want to get excited about but know I’ll just have to face the inevitable “that’s nice, but…” My mind is always chugging and slugging through whatever the latest daft thing is that I’ve seen. It can’t let go, but that’s what happens when you feel silenced and oppressed, whether directly, or as an ally.

The moors used to be my therapy. But like an ex you’re still in love with, they’ve just become a reminder of the anxiety I’m trying to escape.

~~

Read the follow up to ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ here: Winter is Coming

The landscape of emotion

How does landscape manage to break one’s heart so?

I’m sobbing my heart out at Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Rapture’. I’m about 6 poems in – her rapture is still devastatingly new and all-consuming – and I’m swamped in grief for the one time I felt it: a few years back now, but the memories resurfacing with all the impact of a flash flood. With names like ‘Forest’, ‘River’, Haworth’, each reminds me of the emotional ties my own rapture forged with the landscapes my partner and I travelled. If I go to an old social haunt – a pub, a café – I worry about crossing paths and what we will say. But on a favourite walk, the trig point is not a viewpoint – it’s where we kissed, windswept, drenched and exhilarated. The bridge is where we watched the dipper family feeding, a bridge that bonded, learning from each other’s knowledge and joy. And the ancient castle ruins on the tiny island, battered by storms and tides of time, but still standing tall together, now mock those facile bonds, reduced to threadbare remnants just weeks later.

I recently cried at the film ‘Edie’. It had only just started, but I knew how it would end. I knew she would climb the mountain, and the scenery would be amazing, and her life would be changed, and I would cry. I already knew, so I gave in from the very beginning. By the time its abrupt ending came round, the audience were collectively filling the cinema with a lochan of tears. I feel this even when someone starts to describe a beautiful view. I project my own anticipated feelings, and try to oppress the lip-wobble and the voice-quiver. Is it because it’s an emotion I unconditionally empathise with, more so than other experiences people have, like having a family or marriage? Is it because landscape is my healer, my one true love, the thing I am truly in thrall to and which will never break those bonds, no matter how devastating its nature can be? I don’t know.

I do know that I’ve learnt to accept the word ‘grief’ as a valid emotion for many things, not just death. And I know that far more writers than just myself use violent, devastating language to describe the shock of peace and relief that landscape can bring. I’ve struggled to articulate the sadness or more that I often feel at such beauty, but recently read a passage describing the grief within the joy that landscape inspires, that nailed that yearning for opportunities now lost, as encompassed in ‘Edie’, or the inevitable need to leave these places behind, eventually, reluctantly, for the ‘real world’.

We have long celebrated the power that landscapes have to stir human emotions and their ability to gain meaning through metaphor: the climb, the journey, the struggle, the conquest. For me, I assume it’s the sheer drama, coupled with a small amount of antisocial leaning: in some ways, serenity comes for me only when it is illustrated by way of contrast, such as the freedom found at the top of an intensely bleak and lonely moor, or floating on my back in a still and silent tarn, two lazy fingers up to the intimidation of the gnarly, weather-shattered mountain crags. It’s almost always in solitude, because it’s safer that way. No stolen kisses to linger on after I’ve gone. No judgement.

I love the landscapes I love in that I’m not myself away from them. It’s not always a happy relationship; at times it’s been quite turbulent, as my last post will testify. God knows my writings about it aren’t all sunshine and light. But the hills and mountains, lakes and rivers are always there when I’m ready to return, no questions asked; just an open pair of arms welcoming me back into the fold.

The joy of bleakness

Anxiety. I finally had a word for it. And the place I found that word was in a two thousand metre high mountain hut floating in the fog, somewhere below an apparently mythical summit in Slovenia’s Julian Alps.

Perhaps this isn’t your typical ‘how the mountains changed my life’ piece, but in this case, the second epiphanic word to come to me was relief; a way forward through the confusion and the trauma that the mountain had opened up in me – and not for the first time – that day.

I’m not sure there’s an ‘easy’ way up that mountain, but we had taken a route with 1,000 fairly direct metres of ascent up the north wall, including some not inconsiderable amounts of scrambling and exposure. Nothing I wasn’t physically capable of – it wasn’t technical at all – but my uneasiness with exposure and fear of falling came to the fore in spectacular fashion as the relentlessness and claustrophobia of the ascent became evident. Palpitations, tears and more as my entire body went into panic mode.

We are fed a rosy image of mountain climbing as a challenge, which, once overcome, will boost the confidence and render the climber capable of conquering anything. In hesitant moments, companions urge you on and remind you how great you’ll feel and what a celebratory evening it will be. When you’re physically able, the difficulties are surely psychological; and so, with a little mind over matter, success can be yours.

But what about when it just doesn’t work that way?

Since that trip, I’ve learnt a lot about myself. Following a break up a couple of years ago, I was knocked for six, and finally understood. Anxiety is not just worry. It has a physical form: ‘fight or flight’ syndrome. Your brain perceives a threat to your existence, and a shot of adrenaline grips your heart. For some, this fuels those hours storming the gym, releasing frustrated energy. For others, though, it’s a vice, pressing every ounce of energy out of your body. Climbing the stairs feels like someone has turned gravity up to 11. Stepping over a wet rock is so full of uncertainties that you are left shaking and palpitating. Every little setback adds to a cumulative anxiety that does not leave for a very long time.

Exposed scrambles, for me, spark a form of this anxiety. The stress isn’t just in your head; as soon as that adrenaline fires, your whole body goes into meltdown. Balance and focus are screwed. Legs turn to jelly. And when you’re on a mountainside with half a kilometre below you, that’s a frighteningly, and genuinely, dangerous situation. It’s not excitement, it’s trauma. It sticks.

Later that night, having been helped up and around various crags, and repeatedly assured of the elation I would find, I really didn’t feel great at all. I was so wound up I disappeared for a while and cried out what I could. I had to beg my friends to change their descent plan as I couldn’t face the same route down. I went to bed early and spent most of the night falling off cliffs in my jolting half-sleep.

I’d spent long enough trying to get into scrambling, because I wanted a career in the outdoors and felt I should be able to deal with it, that my inability to conquer my fears made me feel like a fraud. I knew what I was letting myself in for and I should have been able to rise above it. As it was, squeezed in that tiny top bunk, I became so convinced I was one day soon going to actually fall off a mountain and die, that I made a firm decision. I was never to go near one ever again. I had fallen out of love, and my hill days were over. I had failed.

The problem was, I had to get down, and not before my friends took on the summit push the following day.

In the bright light of morning, the adrenaline finally subsided. I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the top, but they talked me into having a go.

I wish I could say I pulled it together and nailed it… but I really can’t. I got two mini scrambles up and although I sort of actually did just breeze them, the previous day’s stress kicked back in; most notably a simmering pre-panic about how much lay ahead and whether I would get back down again before my mental state stranded me, cragfast in the clag. I wanted my friends to be able to concentrate on looking after themselves so I didn’t have to worry about that too. This time, I was prepared to assert my conviction that I was not ‘missing out’.

Back at the hut in the col, I bought a cup of mountain tea, and sat, dazed and glazed over.

Eventually, stirring, I pottered up to the minor summit next to the hut, unnerved by the swirling clouds and glimpses of the way down, disappearing into thin air as the path steepened. Another great unknown I didn’t quite feel ready to tackle.

There’s a chapel next to the hut – not my usual haunt, but its emptiness was sanctuary. Silence at last, perfecting the solitude, invited me to give in and let it all out: not the wheezy hyperventilation of the night before, but the kind of catharsis that squeezes every last drop out of you until you’re finally ready to begin again.

I emerged, clouds parting a little, and pottered a bit more. Took a few photos. Sipped another mountain tea. Breathed.

I noticed the tiny mountain flowers clinging on for dear life amongst the barren, frost-shattered rock. The ravens, channelling every inch of Edgar Allen Poe. The bliss of solitude, and why I fell in love with mountains in the first place.

It was never originally about the challenge. For a long while, the completion of a good long hill walk and the fitness acquired did inspire an unfamiliar confidence. But I was there for the landscape. I’d grown up surrounded by the northern moors, and found myself stifled by the absence of hills when I moved away. I went to the hills to be on my own, and they became my favourite companions. Gamekeepers’ tracks and drovers’ roads onto little-known moors few people had seen, were my destinations of choice. But as I got more able, more exciting things beckoned and the chance to finally cast off the cripplingly PE-shy girl of my youth saw me craving bigger, rockier, steeper validation. I started to forget the connection with my rural homeland that hillwalking afforded me, and made some great mountain-sharing friends to go on exciting adventures with. I looked into ways I could turn this ‘outdoors’ thing into a career. I pushed myself through scrambles I didn’t like in pursuit of a Mountain Leader award I thought I needed.

Triglav was the mountain I needed to remind myself what was important. Who was I trying to prove myself to? What made a mountain walk less valid than a mountain scramble? And why was any of that more important than the land we walked on but hardly noticed?

In that col, outside that hut and chapel in the clouds, I reconnected. It was bleak; and out of season, the huge hut was deserted but for a couple of staff. I was essentially alone. The mist occluded any notion of where I was or how I could escape. I was totally isolated from the real world, and it was wonderful.

Achievement meant nothing, if I’d forgotten moments like these; finally, standing up and saying as much in the face of adventure fever became the true act of courage I’d been missing all along.

Three hours later, my friends re-emerged from the fog and we found our way down through the clouds and back to civilisation. They saw my smile had returned and rejoiced in my relief, but the more profound shift was my secret.

I didn’t know that physical anxiety was even a thing, sat up there, restoring my peace; but it was the first time I really associated the word with the way I felt. The things Triglav taught me set me up to survive the much tougher, prolonged spell of anxiety and borderline chronic fatigue that I found myself up against a couple of years later.

I finally found myself able to accept that it was OK to just sit and look at the view, when anything more was too much: because the real joy of the mountains, is just being there with them.

~~~~

This piece began as an entry for Trail Magazine’s ‘The Day a Mountain Changed my Life’ competition… but as something I’ve been wanting to write for some time, it evolved a little beyond the 400-word limit, and found its way onto here instead!

Somewhere, under the rainbow.

I’ve begun re-reading ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ by James Rebanks. It’s slow going.

This isn’t, of course, through any fault of its author; but because every page sparks another memory, another idea, another question. My mind is in another place.

I don’t farm, and haven’t since I was a small child, but as I grow older those roots become more important. When my uncle retires, that will be the last of our line, as there is nobody waiting to take over, and this hits home as I read about generations of farmers passing skills down from one to the next.

I’m just at the point of Rebanks’ grandfather’s stroke, and earlier today my parents told me it would have been my grandad’s birthday. I had forgotten the date.

Rebanks describes his grandparents’ aversion to the television, and although my grandad embraced the TV as he became less able to farm, the scene reminds me of him sitting there, engulfed in the armchair and the old tweed jacket with the billy band round it, topped off with a flat cap; and in my mind’s eye, he is the spit of my dad. My dad chose not to farm, so nowadays the baler twine and flat cap are replaced by a Rab jumper and woolly hat – but the face is the same. Perhaps it has been longer since my grandad passed away than I realise.

My thoughts drift away to the day he died. I had begun walking to reconnect with the hills after moving away from home, and having heard the news, nothing seemed so apt in tribute as the walk I had already planned that day, 15 miles in the glorious pissing downpour of the moors.

On the morning of his funeral, I took my parents’ dog up the lane for a walk. More rain, but once more I couldn’t bring myself to turn back. The lane runs below the last intakes – where we would later bury his ashes as he’d wanted, overlooking the upper reaches of our small branch of the dale – up to the old sheep pens on the edge of the moor. I don’t usually go that far, and wasn’t meaning to that morning. But as I walked, a rainbow formed.

I think I once described the moment to my brother, drunk; but it always sounded so pretentious – and just a bit bloody daft, really – that for over a decade I’ve kept it to myself as something to remember him by.

The rainbow was an absolute whopper. Blazing defiantly against a doom-laden black sky, it started, perfectly, at the top of my grandad’s farm, and ended at the bottom. Our local village, where his father had been the butcher, sat proudly under the arch. If I were a poet; if I were religious… the symbolism would have been immense. But I am neither, and I just stood there, trying to make sense of the feeling.

This is as close as I’ve ever got to believing in ghosts as an adult. The unexpected spiritual shake up compelled me trepidatiously on; the grass-swallowed lane creeping its way, rockily and unevenly up the hillside to a worn, weather-beaten gate, and the start of the endless, desolate moor. The top of our land, and the end of the rainbow.

There is no pot of gold here. There is value in the sense of place, of times gone by, and even in the bleakness of their loss. Sepia photographs in the local museum show the whole community up here in their Sunday best, with picnics, making a real celebration of the gathering of the sheep off the moor and into the old sheep pens. I love these hints of my ancestors’ former presence, they connect me to the landscape; but abandonment also amplifies that sense of sublime wilderness found only where humans have once brought civilisation, but ultimately, inevitably, been knocked back.

I approach the gate and it feels like the boundary between spiritual planes, not land. Although logic tells me otherwise, I am almost utterly convinced that, standing on the other side of the wall, will be a plain speaking fellsman, leaning on his stick, gazing out on his patch; casually chewing on a blade of grass like nowt had happened.

Pulse racing, I push the gate open and step through.

Nothing.

The pens sit, dilapidated, corrugated iron flapping in the wind. The rainbow is fading, and the spectacular view of the village is fogged and miserable once more. I have a little moment, then give the dog a pat on the head before legging it back down the hill in time for the funeral.

I remember sitting on the sofa with my dad, feeling horrendously inadequate, because all I wanted to ask was ‘are you OK?’, but not quite knowing how. Instead we sat in silence, allowing ourselves to be distracted by some crap daytime comedy on the telly.

I don’t quite know what to do with my emotions, and so I cry throughout the service, but it’s really just my body processing stuff. I had already said goodbye; under the rainbow, up on the hill.

To the couple walking their dog off the lead this morning…

Today I passed you coming up the hill as I walked back down to my house. There was a sizeable group of feeding sheep just metres away but out of your sightline, so I mentioned this to you as I thought you might want to put your dog on its lead. The usual response from responsible dog owners (and you certainly appeared to be, judging by how well trained she was; that much was obvious before we spoke) is usually “Oh, thanks for letting me know, come here Fido!”

Your reply was the old chestnut “Oh, she’s very good, she won’t leave us,” in your best pacifying voice. And my presence of mind totally left me. Do you have any idea how many times I, and every farmer in the country, have heard that one? But did I advise you that the sheep didn’t know that? Did I point out that they were pregnant? No. I said “She’d better…” with raised eyebrows and my best Paddington stare.

Did you think I was the farmer? Did you automatically assume, due to my terrible response, that I was attacking you because all farmers are angry walker-haters, right? Or were you stunned that another walker was on their side? Maybe you just didn’t like my attitude, even if the only actual attitude you got from me was those two simple words. It certainly wasn’t aggressive – I don’t even know how to pull that off.  Either way, you clearly felt the need to be on the defensive because when I turned round to check the sheep were indeed OK, you turned round to check on me too. Why exactly did your conscience suspect I might be watching you?

Well here’s why I was, if you really want to know.

I don’t have the joy of spending all day every day out in the open air, so I rely on outdoor access through other people’s land as much as anyone else, and I advocate it. But I have been in contact with outdoor access projects where it’s clear that gaining the trust of farmers and landowners will always be the best way to negotiate better access for walkers. And there seems to be one issue on which the outcome of every conversation hangs: not people, but dogs.

Those sheep were indeed pregnant – one hopes, at least, given their colourful rear ends, indicating the tup had definitely been in close contact. My best analogy is this: if a wolf walked into the room I was in, it wouldn’t need to chase me to put me on red alert and get the blood pressure rising. It could sit there calmly and peacefully, but I still wouldn’t know what it was going to do next. If it came towards me, it wouldn’t need to physically attack me to cause enough stress to put an unborn baby at risk. And if it really took up the chase, imagine having to run for your life at 8 months pregnant.

The sheep doesn’t know that our dogs aren’t going to chase it, and it certainly doesn’t know when dogs are ‘only playing’ – another old chestnut that really does make me cross. No sheep deserves to be stressed like this, but pregnant ewes in particular can abort and consequently die themselves. No actual attack needs to take place, and I will never forget trying to hold it together whilst listening to a farming couple describing, with tears in their eyes, losing 12 ewes and their two dozen unborn lambs, due entirely to stress from an off-lead dog chase. That’s the kind of story you don’t see on the ‘DOGS ON LEADS!’ signs.

This human aspect is just as relevant as the sheep themselves. I’ve often got into discussions about whether something is an ‘actual’ problem or just ‘perceived’; meaning that often people worry disproportionately about something that ‘might never’ happen. But I don’t always think that idea of ‘real’ and ‘perceived’ is a fair distinction between what is a problem and what isn’t. Shit does happen, and when it does, it devastates. And I don’t just mean damage to the farmer’s income; I mean those sheep are living creatures, as deserving of a stress-free existence as our dogs are deserving of a nice leg stretch. When the worst happens, and a farmer has to gather the brutalised corpses of his flock, how can that be anything but heartbreaking? And every single dog owner thinks their dog ‘won’t bother anything’. Every last one.

So can you see how, by the time you utter those words to someone, the stress is already there, and the damage is done? Blood pressure is up, in both the sheep and the observing farmer, and stress lingers. Lingering stress turns into anxiety, and anxiety affects every aspect of your life. And that’s a very real problem. When I was younger, the Samaritans were the official sponsor of the Young Farmers Club. Does that start to put this into context? Nobody needs the extra worry, on top of all the other challenges of farming, of watching dogs off leads with their hearts in their mouths wondering what will happen next, knowing that it’s entirely possible a dog is perfectly behaved, as yours indeed was (to her and your credit) – but that every single person says that, and it isn’t actually all that often true. They have no way of knowing whether, when you say that, you are the genuine minority; so please don’t take offence.

When you see livestock, think of it this way. Putting your dog on a lead by default isn’t a waste of time or an unnecessary restriction, even when you genuinely believe they won’t bother anything. It’s a statement. It says, my dog is well behaved, but I respect the farmer – and if they can see my respect, they’ll trust me more as a walker; and consequently, if others do the same, every walker. Perception really does count for something.

The biggest driver for improvement to public access surely has to be that building of trust between walkers and farmers – and putting our dogs on leads around livestock, even if they’re perfectly behaved – is the single biggest thing we can do to encourage that trust.

So there you have it: that’s why I was surprised when you didn’t thank me for the information and put your incredibly beautiful and well behaved dog on a lead, regardless. And that second time you turned round, to shout something unintelligible down the hill at me? I couldn’t see your dog or the sheep by that point. I was just noticing what a lovely photograph the two of you, silhouetted against the crisp blue sky, would have made.

A Song of Ice and Fire

On Sunday, I bit off more than I could chew.

It was a route I’d got my teeth into many a time, but always in the height of summer, with euphoric sunshine boosting my energy and propelling me through this epic journey around the upper dale’s watershed. It turns out in minus-8 wind chill and 9 hours of daylight, it’s quite the different kettle of fish.

Fair play, I still had the sunshine; without that the harebrained idea wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. I hadn’t been able to decide what I wanted to do most in the one day of perfect sunshine that was forecast for my week off work: the bleak and beautiful moors above the house, or the peak at the head of our valley. Then I remembered how glorious a full circuit could be, and indeed what wonderful light sunrise over the moors provided, and the plan was hatched. An early start and an 8 hour round would get me nicely home mid afternoon, with possibly even time to call in on a friend who’d invited me for coffee.

That said, I know the terrain, my limits and the risks very well, and I’m equipped with a good headtorch, spare batteries, emergency bivvy, and the crème de la crème of lightweight-yet-super-insulating down jackets… just in case.

But back to the start. It’s 7am and I am EXCITED. I haven’t been up ‘my’ moors for so long, and they are the one place on earth I know I can find absolute solitude. Not just ‘nobody in sight’, but a knowledge that only a handful of people have trodden this route ever, never mind today, this week or even this year. It’s the one place I am loathe to write about, because it’s my secret. I’ve been going there since long before CROW meant anything other than a large black bird, with the permission of the gamekeeper, who was our closest neighbour, and whose farm you have to pass through to get there. Once, I got up before dawn in slightly warmer circumstances, and ran (OK, jogged, intermittently) all the way up, the landscape transforming from deep indigo to fiery red. As the sun rose, a golden glow gradually gave in to blue skies and white fluffy clouds as daylight established itself with full force.

This time, I am armed with my ‘proper’ camera. To me, it’s hi-tech, but two photography courses and a number of magazine commissions later, I appreciate the light-capturing compromises made in favour of its super zoom. Still, there were opportunities not to be missed, so I gave it a shot, bouncing like a child in a sweet shop nonetheless.

I watched and waited as the valley behind me slowly changed from icy grey to gold, the shadow line of the moors retreating, and the local villages glinting in first light. Finally, the sun breached the horizon to my left, behind a line of grouse butts, and I soaked up those first precious rays of my own personal rocket fuel.

As my path gained height, so did the moor to my left, and the sun rose and fell on repeat. My shadow flitted beside me, echoing a Brocken Spectre that had once followed me for hours along a white-frosted ridge on another mountain range. Climbing further, every dip and shadow returned the moor to ice, and crunchy underfoot puddles became more decoratively frozen as the bitterly cold air increased its bite with altitude. Eventually, I reached the shooting hut, old and leaning, unlocked and stocked with various cans: testament to the solitude of the place that even the beaters’ sustenance was left unprotected.

Ducking inside to add a layer out of the wind, a bag of medicated grit reminds me how welcome the hard frost would be to the keepers. Red grouse are essentially wild animals, and medicated grit – which grouse swallow as a digestion aid – is one of the few interventions gamekeepers play in their welfare. The medication tackles the disease strongylosis, the grouse’s nemesis, which can decimate a season’s population with ease. The natural way of things is a heavy cold spell to kill the worm off, but with temperatures rising, keepers are able to lend a helping hand.

My thoughts return to the view from the hut window. I spot the keeper driving up in his incongruously new 4×4, and duck out to say hello, after gaining permission to access the moor the night before. Technically, permission is for access through the farm, as the moor is now open access. But, like the unlocked store of lager, another testament to these moors’ solitude is the lingering sense that it’s not usual for another human to be here, and that it’s only polite to let the keeper know he might come across me, intruding on his own personal wilderness and escape.

I explain that I might just wander to the top of the lane and back down… or if I’m feeling energetic, I might carry on around the boundary fence, if he doesn’t mind. Impressed, or incredulous – I’m not sure which – he replies “Well, that’s a fair route – good on you!” and we continue on our ways, my day’s human interaction over and done with. Somehow, in the search for solitude, this conversation doesn’t impact. Keepers live and breathe these moors and are as much a part of their identity as the heather, the grouse, and the glorious freedom.

There’s a strange feeling I get on these hills of being at the end of the world. Perhaps it’s the years I lived here without exploring enough, with the walls of moor surrounding the dale seemingly inaccessible and impenetrable. The lack of roads mean an hour’s drive to the village just beyond the hill; and even when I did start hillwalking, it took a number of attempts to reach the top due to unfitness and trepidation.

Or maybe these extreme reaches of the dale are too steeped in my own ‘hiraeth’, rendering the landscape completely different to other moors, which are known by others, and have no personal connection for me. Either way, I walk these hills not anticipating the next valley, but another, far-distant world, like standing on the moon and looking back at Earth.

I reach the brow of the track, and there, standing proud, straight ahead, is the next range of hills; yet like every other time, surrounded by early morning haze, I have to remind myself they’re real. Nowadays I know my bearings, but it still seems surreal. This isn’t a view that exists to other people. And as I make the final climb to the moor’s exposed, wind-battered top, I do a double take. A faint scene, somewhere between an alien city and a shimmering lost Atlantis, hovers on the horizon, just beyond the skyline. My camera zooms in, and there is Teesside, an industrial light year away from this remote top, with the north sea wind turbines lined up beyond. It feels impossible.

Descending to the boundary fence, I realise something has changed. There should be ditches here, and by the law of averages, I should have been in knee deep by now. Finally, I am reconnected with the real world.

In December 2015, Storm Desmond wreaked havoc, and friends of mine were uprooted for months on end. Talked swiftly turned to hills and bogs, and why moorland drainage was to blame for the sheer speed of the water rising and descending on our towns and cities. At random events I attended, speakers blamed flooding on gamekeepers and farmers, drying out the land for better grazing and shooting. A regular victim of this flooding is a city directly fed by the rains draining off my local moors. And so, the stories began to hit a nerve, because that particular story of blame is not the one I know.

The problem with moorland drainage is that it encourages water straight into free flowing watercourses, instead of being trapped in blanket bog. Running water erodes stream beds and collects silt as it goes, dumping it again when the ground levels out, with no discretion. As this run-off gains momentum, rivers rise at rates of knots, as all the fallen rain fights its way to the sea at all costs. But many of these drainage channels, reducing bog, and speeding up flow, originated from Government grants to increase agricultural productivity. An oral history project I recently came across included recordings of a farmer speaking with incredulity about the Government offering grants in the 80’s to dig ditches (‘grips’) for grouse chicks and sheep to get stuck and drown in, and which would send torrents of water flying down the hillside, only to change their minds years later after realising the farmers and keepers were right all along. While the estate owners chose to take the grant, the view clearly wasn’t shared by all those on the ground, and it speaks volumes about the misinformation bandied about by worryingly high profile names about whose decisions these actually were.

Walking this particular section of the moor had always involved much jumping of channels and trying not to land in one, and I’m glad on many levels to see the amount of grip blocking that has been carried out here. It’s genuinely impressive how little trace there now is of these deep channels, other than pools of developing bog and telltale shadows on the hillside, now reduced to a mere archaeological remnant of what went before.

After these spectral visions of far-off lands on the summit and a welcome confirmation that good things do happen on modern moorlands, I am high on life, and it’s only 10am. So I continue – the day now blinding and blue, its icy hues echoed in my numb fingers and stinging nostrils – and reach the boundary, where Home gives way to the honeypot of the National Park. Today, however, I won’t cross over until the dale’s true summit: three relentless miles of peat hag later. It’ll slow me down, sure, but how hard can three measly miles be when I’ve walked that fence so many times before?

Half an hour later, I am exhausted. Those happy summer times, bounding along with my parents’ now-elderly dog in tow, have disappeared to the other world. It’s so cold, the hags are sucking every last drop of my energy and I’m not sure I’m going to make it before dark. Should I turn back? No… it’s only 11am… and it’s two and a half miles to the top, then the hard bit’s done and I’m on the home straight, and I have my headtorch.

But it’s a really long two and a half miles, and the hags are not frozen, and there’s at least one serious foot-in-bog incident. With the weather as it is, it’s a prime day for burning heather too. I never fail to be entranced by the distant flames and post-apocalyptic smoke streams as the keepers go about clearing old heather for new shoots to come through and provide feed for the grouse. Up here, with numerous pink plumes carried on the wind, one for each gamekeeper in the dale, it hits the nostrils too.

Some time later, legs thick with fatigue and lungs heavy with muirburn, I finally make it to my favourite viewpoint. A line of weather worn, split silver crags almost fools me, as always, into thinking it’s limestone pavement; but it’s far too rough, and I know the geology of these dales too well. I pause, taking in a brand new expanse of open green hillside and sky blue reservoir. I attempt to take a rare selfie, failing to recreate an old photo of me and my best canine walking buddy, wishing he were here to pat on the head and share the moment with.

Finally, the cairn comes into view that signals the last few metres to the true summit. And there it is: the Lake District. Not just the faintest of grey hazes in the distance – which I’d seen once before – but, possibly… could that actually be Scafell Pike, and the entire line of central fells? And on the other side, Teesside, once again! I’m astounded that these two places, so removed from the impenetrable defences of this dale, are suddenly so connected. I’m not aware of any other place where this is possible.

Life has returned, and a burst of energy sees me bouncing from rock to rock, trying to capture some shots before the sun disappears behind one of the grey clouds now lurching across the summit. But it doesn’t last long… Clear day or not, the bitter wind is racing and my fingers are so numb I’m reciting the ‘umbles’ to myself – grumble, mumble, fumble, stumble, tumble; signs of hypothermia – to reassure myself the iciness hasn’t infiltrated any further than the extremities. I don’t even go as far as the summit trig; there’s no time for lingering on the views. It’s gloves on and quick away down the hill, anything for a bit of respite.

It may, however, have been respite from the weather; but not, it seems, from the battle. Initially, I’m distracted by the greenness of the ground – I’m sure these hags were much bigger and blacker before – and realise I’m walking through another restoration project; this time the re-vegetation of exposed peat hags, preventing run off, storing carbon more securely and encouraging more bog to develop. It’s great to see, but doesn’t buoy me for long, for I’d forgotten how difficult walking down peaty hillsides was. Once again, I’m completely off-path, this time with no navigational handrails other than a vague but familiar bearing, and mostly just my nose. I check the time and realise the going is so slow I’ve already missed coffee, and will be lucky if I’m home in time for tea. I decide that the only thing worse than a false summit is a false descent – I believe every brow I cross will open up the view and show the way down, but I just get more peat, more bogs and more ankle-wrenching tussocks of moor grass determined to leave me stranded here, or crawling off the hill for miles in the dark. Feeling thoroughly dejected by now, the only plus side is that I’m concentrating so hard I don’t notice the cold for once.

Finally… finally, I drop down to the reservoir, and the best thing I’ve seen all day: a path. A real live footpath, and a bridge, and then a gravel track. Salvation at last; from here, I know it’s road and lane all the way home. In fact, if I really want to, I can hitch a lift down the road from the reservoir car park, and it’s a ridiculously appealing thought. I can be there in… 4 miles, and then home in 10 minutes… But a niggle of pride kicks in, and reminds me it’s only 3 extra miles to walk, and the only climb I have left is very short. So, with seven miles left, off I go, at a bracing pace – in my head. The reality is two wet, sore feet and one extremely tight hamstring, and the next best thing I’ve seen all day is the rest hut by the stone dam.

This turn of the century construction, a real feat of engineering, has never failed to impress me before, but today I’m beyond it. I spy a couple walking towards me with a dog, but it’s my hackles that rise. Today is not for human contact. They eye the hut; I stride purposefully and try to own it… somehow it works, and on they go. I breathe, and finally eat. My water is too cold and I realise I’m shivering. It’s still light, but the hills obscure the sun. The down jacket, which rarely sees the light of day, comes out, and stays on until I get home.

I edge down the rest of the track, slowly but surely, gradually warming up. I stumble slightly, but it’s muscular, not hypothermic. Six and a half miles to go… five miles to go… and finally, three last little measly ones over the final bit of moor to home. One last push up the hill; one last view of my entire route; one last photo of the sun setting behind the moors and bringing the journey full circle.

I stare into space, defrosting in the shower, and look forward to a chilled cider and the warm glow of the telly; all to myself.

Green Slovenes and the British attitude to plastic

Earlier today, BBC Radio 5 Live shared a video on Twitter that I just had to share, but those 140 characters were nowhere near sufficient to communicate the drive behind the retweet.

The short video shows swathes of floating plastic and other rubbish stretching for miles in the Caribbean, while underwater photographer Caroline Power describes the experience. A final scene shows her popping up through the middle of the plastic swamp, turning the slightly surreal image of sunshine, blue seas and rubbish into a directly shocking connection between human disgust and the floating mass of waste.

My first thought was of beach cleans I’ve been on. Even a remote nature reserve beach clean generated tons of plastic rubbish, awash with cotton bud sticks, tampon applicators, and bottle after bottle, lid after lid. I heard how plastic bottles safely tied up in landfill bin bags escape and blow away once the sack splits and the wind picks up. Even worse, I learnt how after floods, overloaded sewage works have no choice but to release the overflow, and that’s where the cotton sticks and tampon applicators come from.

I began my reply tweet along those lines, and then remembered my resolve to leave criticism behind and focus on the positives!

So I thought back to a couple of trips I’ve made to Slovenia, one of the greenest countries in the world, in both senses of the word. Predominantly forest, and with a capital city whose population reaches less than 300,000, its residents appear to have an immense amount of pride in its cleanliness and environmental credentials. I think this in part reflects the sparsity of population, and the self sufficient rural lives I observed in the Julian Alps, out of the way and oblivious to capitalism and throwaway culture. Tractors are older than I am, but there’s no need for anything bigger because there’s no space for modern farming in the hills. Mountain huts hang up stacks of biodegradable carrier bags for walkers and mountaineers heading upwards, printed with ‘fill me and return me’ slogans. I took one, and it remained empty; there was no litter to be found.

It doesn’t stop with the unpopulated mountains. I stayed at Bled on both occasions, the honeypot tourist trap, on the shores of the most picture postcard example of an alpine lake you could ever hope to see. You’d think the hordes of tourists would at least leave some trace, with takeaway coffee cups, food stalls and supermarkets a regular feature. Yet I think I saw one piece of litter the entire time. Dog poo was nowhere to be found. But it’s not forced, it doesn’t feel like a controlled effort to create an ‘image’ of the country. I don’t recall any ‘Keep Lake Bled Tidy’ messages, begging us to look after it. Instead, I recall only the reverence which I and my fellow tourists felt for Slovenia’s greenness and its residents’ palpable pride in their surroundings.

Slovenia’s capital, I’m reliably informed, is like a cross between Amsterdam and Prague (I’ve been to neither). Architectural history is not my forte, but Ljubljana is beautiful, and as clean as anywhere else. I walked for ages either side of its popular green river, hemmed in by steep stone banks and overlooked by its castle, dating back 900 years. I crossed its famous bridges, pottered around the independent gift and craft shops, and became thirsty. And this is the thing about Slovenia: I felt so conspicuous buying water. In Ljubljana, there are free water taps dotted around the city, and every website I’d read made a point of this. It was a true badge of honour for Ljubljanans that you never had to buy a single-use bottle. Imagine my shame, ducking into a newsagent and coming out with a brand new one, which I proceeded to drink quickly, crumpling its edges to make it look old, and refilling as soon as possible.

In the tourist information centre, there were various displays and publications celebrating Ljubljana’s crowning as European Green Capital 2016. By this point, we’re talking a simple “Oh, of course” moment than a surprise – but the more I read, the more impressed I was. There were more pioneering green initiatives going on than I have any chance of remembering, and I felt genuinely proud of this tiny city which I’d never been to before and had no other connection with. Environmental values were so strongly ingrained in the Slovene consciousness it was as if it couldn’t even occur to anyone to throw a plastic bottle away, or drop a fag end on the ground. It’s a clear example of cultural consciousness being the biggest driver for public behaviour. Perhaps it’s always been that way in Slovenia and its capitalism-resistant past, but in other places it’s that shift in consciousness that will make the lasting differences, one step at a time.

So next time you buy a single use water bottle, imagine being genuinely frowned upon and whether that might prompt you to start using a refillable bottle. Imagine you were the only one in an entire town to drop a piece of litter in a day. In Britain you’re more likely to be a ‘hippy’ for refusing to buy water, or to think your coffee cup is just one of millions, so how will it make a difference? But the tide is turning. Anti-plastic campaigns are gaining momentum, videos like the one above are hitting hard, and companies are making the move towards compostable packaging. It will take time, but new attitudes do filter through slowly, generationally. Keep going. Flaunt that reusable bottle of tapwater, so others will see it’s normal too. And those cotton bud sticks? Please, pop them in the bin, not the loo.