Chew Magna Lake

December


Chew Magna Lake – 10 miles
I looked at the sign, looked at the trail, and made a step froward. But no, I was on foot and twenty miles was just too much for one afternoon. But I would have my bike again soon and then I would be able to visit the lake.

January, February, March


I bent over the map from Sustrans and followed cycle route three with my finger, all the way to Chew Magna Lake. Only ten miles from home. On my next day off, I would go. But nothing happened.

April


Do you want to cycle to Chew Magna Lake?
Sure
I received the text with a smile on my face. I was finally going to make it to the lake I’d been dreaming about for so long.

On the first proper day of sunshine, we wheeled our bikes outside of Bristol, following the signs from Sustrans. Country roads wound their way between hedges, inclines dropping down to quiet villages where the occasional car would pass by. The trees were still bare but buds had began to appear and as the sun warmed the earth it felt like winter was finally at an end.

We arrived at the lake happy for a ride out of town. We parked the bikes and went to explore the trails around the water on foot. Streams and pools encircled the footpath providing freshness in this unexpected warm day. We followed the bittern trail, stopping at a viewing point to admire the view and listen to nature around us. There were bird calls we couldn’t identify, the gentle swaying of long grass, and in my imagination the fishing lines of fishermen in the small boats we could see.

We eventually walked away, back to the bicycle for a bite to eat. Our lunch over, we lingered by the lake, the sun warming our skin. I could feel it burn my skin but couldn’t find the resolve to cover my skin. After month of long sleeves and coat, this felt too good to pass.

The afternoon was drawing to a close and my friend had to get back to Bristol. So we unlocked the bicycles and rode away, following another route from Sustrans, another entry into the city, another landscape.

Wales Border Walk: Chepstow to Monmouth

I can’t remember how it began. There were long-distance walks enjoyed and leaving me craving for more. There were people writing about walking the South West Coast Path in stages. There was Quintin Lake taking photos of the whole British coastline. And there was the move to Bristol right next to Wales. This somehow made me yearn to walk the Wales Coast Path. So when I realised I had a whole week-end off at the start of February, it felt natural to embark on the first walk around Wales.

I popped in Stanfords to get a book about it. There were publications about various stages of the walk and a chunky Cicerone guide. I picked the latter up before anyone else could snatch it and was about to pay when another book caught my eye. ‘Offa’s Dyke Path‘ I whispered, reading the title. Instinctively my hand went up and took the book off the shelve. I had heard of this walk, friends and vague acquaintances had followed it. I remembered it involved the Welsh border. So what if I walked the entire Wales Border? After all, this was only adding a 177 miles to my journey around Wales, and it would make a nice loop. Not thinking any further, I went to counter and paid for both items.

But now had a dilemma: which path would I follow first? I knew I was going to start in Chepstow. But would I veer north or west? I thought about tossing a coin or rolling a dice. Instead I checked the weather forecast. North was predicted to be marginally better. So that was it, Offa’s Dyke Path would be the start of my journey around Wales.

On Friday night, I packed my bag, and went to sleep eager for the hours to tick away. Six o’clock came, my alarm rang and I was out of the house to catch a bus. There was no traffic at this hour and the bus soon arrived in Chepstow. The sun had risen by then and I easily made my way out-of-town, half following the Wales Coast Path signs, half following Google Maps. I stopped on a bridge overlooking an A-road but didn’t linger to watch cars go by. Daylights hours were still scarce and I wanted to leave the urban environment. I spotted the familiar acorn of National Trails and followed it through kissing gates and fields.

The grass was cracking under foot, still trapped in a layer of frost. I thought of the camp I would have to make that night and shivered. I had my winter equipment with me, but I knew it would still be a cold night. But now was not the time to think about it, so I brushed the thought aside and walked on. The Severn estuary rolled away to the east with views of England on the other side. But I was more interested in what was going on to the west. I had reached Wintour’s Leap. Perched high in the landscape I overlooked the Wye gorge as the river made its final dash for the sea. A thin layer of mist hung low over the valley as if the landscape was not quite awake yet.

Buildings and tarmac disappeared as I made a turn into the woods. I remained below the dyke for a while and marvelled at the determination and manpower it must have taken to built it. And yet there are no contemporary accounts mentioning it. So its origin and purpose are still enigmatic today but it is generally agreed that Offa, King of Mercia from 757 to 796 ordered its construction. This earthwork formed the boundary between Mercia and the Kingdom of Powys. Even the full length of the dyke is debated. But what is certain is that it marked and still marks the landscape of the borderlands. More than a millennium later, it still passes within a few miles of the current England-Wales border.

I reached the Devil’s Pulpit overlooking Tintern’s Abbey. Legends has it that the Devil preached on the jetting stone to tempt the monks of the abbey. His efforts were wasted as Tintern Abbey became one of the most prosperous in Wales.

‘Admiring the view,’ I heard a man ask me.
‘Yes. It’s quite something,’ I replied. Two men had arrived from the opposite direction.
‘Are you going far,’ the older man enquired upon spotting my bag on the floor.
‘Monmouth. I’m walking Offa’s Dyke Path.’
‘Us too. We started down there,’ the younger man commented as he pointed to Tintern. ‘We’re going to Chepstow.’
I reassured them that the walk was going to be just as good and with a quite a bit of downhill for them. They couldn’t promise the same for me.
I waved them off as they continued on their way and strapped my bag to my back. There were still many miles to go.

I passed a few more groups of people, all wishing me well on my journey, and reached a crossroad. I could go straight ahead across to the Hudnalls or visit Brockweir and continue along the river Wye. I looked at the hills ahead and began walking towards them but soon I backtracked and descended to the river. I had never seen the river Wye but I had heard of it many times. I had read about people walking alongside it and people kayaking on its water. And I wanted to see it. The hills would have to wait.

I stopped for lunch in the village by the Wye. Its water was running fast and I didn’t fancy trying to paddle upstream. I thought about having a nap before walking on but the weather was too cold. I needed to move to keep warm. So I went on along the river, watching its murky water flow in the opposite direction.

I rejoined the main route at Bigsweir Bridge, climbing back to the top of the landscape, and into the woods. It wasn’t so cold under the canopy of trees so when I got hungry again, I stopped to brew a cup of tea. As I sat on a fallen tree, I realised I had not seen another human figure for a while, nor could I hear the sound of traffic or planes. There may have been human activity a few miles from me, but as far as I was concerned I was on my own in the forest. I smiled and enjoyed that cup of tea all the more.

I checked the maps and instructions and realised I wasn’t too far from Redbrook. I hadn’t expected to walk that far but the cold had powered me on with shorter breaks than usual. Maybe I could make it all the way to Monmouth? I brushed the idea aside. I wasn’t that far but there were a lot of ups and downs and I was beginning to feel the weight of the bag on my shoulder.

I packed my stove and walked on under the trees, occasionally crossing a muddy clearing. The brown and green of the ground were highlighted from the rain of the previous week, marking a sharp contrast against the bare canopy over my head. As I reached Highbury Wood, I found the whole of my body and brain drifting into the rhythm of my steps. The bag felt heavier than at the beginning of the walk and I couldn’t find a position that would relieve the pain. There were many spots that called me to stop and set up camp for the night, but it was cold and there were still another couple of hours of daylight. So I walked on, my thoughts obliterated by the pain.

Perched high in the woods, I was faced with a steep descent into Redbrook. Staying upright took all of my concentration, making me forget for a moment the load on my back. I arrived in the village and wondered what to do. There was a welcoming pub just around the corner from the path. A pub with accommodation. I looked at it longingly, a strange figure on the pavement by a park full of children. In the end, I walked away. I had not come to sleep in a bed in Wales. Monmouth was now just under four miles away. I knew that if I reached it I wouldn’t be able to carry on the following day. The guide was quite clear about the scarcity of transport between Monmouth and Haye-On-Wye (which was just a little too far for another day’s walk). This left me with two options: find a spot to spot between Redbrook and Monmouth or walk all the way to Monmouth and catch a bus home. Not wanting to bargain with buses, I checked timetables on my phone. As long as I kept walking there was a good chance I could catch the last bus to Abergavenny and from there hop on a train.

Invigorated by the idea of making it to Monmouth, I found a new spring in my steps. I left Redbrook via a narrow farm path surrounded by fields. I could see further than I had been able to most of the day. A few cars passed me by, people busy gathering chickens and horses waved at me, and a few dog walkers shared an amicable greeting with me. I was not part of their life but I was not an unusual sight either and in that moment I felt part of the general landscape.

The sun began to set, slowly draining the world from its colours. But the progress was slow and I could still see where I was going. I reached the Roundhouse on the Kymin Hill overlooking Monmouth. The buildings were impressive but I didn’t spare much time for them. Not far in the distance, a few miles below me, lay Monmouth illuminated like a starry night on the ground. And further still, I could just make out the contours of the Brecon Beacons. I gazed at them longingly. Ever since I had known I was going to move to Bristol, I have been lurking at the Brecon Beacons, desperately waiting for the weather to change so I would have time to explore them. The light was rapidly fading and I had a bus to catch. So I tore myself away from the sight and walked on. It was all downhill from there and I found myself almost giggling as I half walked, half slid on a muddy woodland path.

I reached a road, and found myself standing by Monmouth sign. I had made it. I had passed a pub a few metres ago and doubtless there would be more in town. And in that moment there was nothing more I wanted but to sit in one with a well-earn pint of ale. I checked my watch to see if I had time. I didn’t. In fact, I had to hurry to the bus station if I didn’t want to miss the bus. I drank some water, pretending this was an ale and walked on to the station. The bus pulled in as I arrived. I hopped in, the sole passenger at this time of day, and the driver took me straight to Abergavenny station where I caught a train home.

Stockwood Open Space Nature Reserve

What images does Stockwood Open Space conjure up in your mind?

Trail Guide, Stockwood Open Space, Avon Wildlife Trust 1984

Unless you live in South Bristol, the images are probably a blur of green field, maybe some trees and a pond of some sort. That would be better than the picture I had of it a couple of months ago when I first arrived in Bristol. My new home was filled with the bare essentials and I was free to explore. So I set off on foot to find out what my local area contained. Google Maps didn’t look promising. There was a big green space but it was a golf course. The rest was a mix of dull greys. At least it’s what I could see without the satellite imagery. I didn’t have access to those in what was then an Internet free house.

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Trail Guide, Stockwood Open Space, Avon Wildlife Trust 1984

I tucked my phone in my pocket and walked out of my front door, my sole focus being on walking away from the busy A4 connecting Bristol to Bath. I meandered in narrowing streets and soon found myself in Scotland Road. A sign declared it was flooded but I ignored it, ducking under the barrier. The last houses of the city disappeared behind me, leaving their space to trees, shrubs, and fields. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. There was the distant roar of the A4 but everything else was telling me I was in the British countryside I had come to know. Bewildered, I went on, eager to see where the road would lead and if the trees on my right would offer an opening for me to see what lay behind them because as far as Google was concerned the answer was ‘nothing’. But soon I reached the flooded area and unless I was up for a paddle, I couldn’t walk on. So I turned back. By this time the sun was already setting and I resolved to go back to the blank space on the map the following day.

I was standing at the edge of Stockwood Road, the blank space spread out before me. I had expected a disused industrial estate of sorts, or a wasteland forgotten by the people, but not what I saw. There were trees lining a tarmac path and nature as far as my eye could see. I stepped in and noticed a sign. I had entered the Stockwood Open Space Nature Reserve. I could hardly believe my luck.  I left the sign behind and set out to explore what would undoubtedly become my new nature patch.

I followed the path and was led back home with a smile on my face. I had seen the remains of ancient woodlands, green fields, ponds, and an orchard full of apple trees. I knew I had only glimpsed what was contained in this open space. There was more to discover but my new job was starting the following day, my house mate would arrive a couple of days later and soon Christmas would take over everything. So it wasn’t until a couple of weeks into January that I had the opportunity to go back to spend a morning wandering away from the tarmac. By this time, I had done a bit of research and had even joined the Friends of Stockwood Open Space.

I came into the area via the Hungerford Road Open Space. A fenced-ringed path covered in wet crushed leaves separates the two spaces. It opened at the cart pond meadow where I found a hidden stone lined pond. The bare trees laid their branches over the water, sheltering it from the golden rays of sunlight. I snapped a photo. A dog arrived, his head already bent down to drink. I didn’t move and watched him for a while as he took a few strides into the pond. Refreshed, he lifted his head and saw me, a startled expression in his eyes before he began to bark in sheer surprise at finding an unknown human being in what clearly was his pond. I moved away and back into the sun-drenched field.

I crossed over to the dipping pond meadow and followed a slippery path along the water’s edge. The light was muted and the smell of wet earth invaded my lungs. I felt like I had entered a secret garden only accessible when water levels were low. I crouched down, watching the shimmering reflections of bare branches on the calm surface of the pond. A few people walked in the distance on the tarmac path but they didn’t see me. As my legs began to ache, I left my spot and went over a bridge made of two heavy wooden planks leading me into a bush. A narrow corridor had been cleared in the hedgerow, opening into a wide playing field. The light almost blinded me as I stepped away from the dipping pond.

Dog walkers were throwing tennis balls far and wide to the sheer delights of dogs. I ignored the frenzy of activity and made straight for the meadow opposite. Grass blades were long, welcoming thistles and newly planted trees still encased in plastic tubes. I wondered what they were. They were still too low to cover the view but eventually they would join the older trees I could see up the hill. I climbed up, carefully avoiding the few patches of ice the sun hadn’t yet melted, and found myself in a small woodland. It reminded me of the woodlands near Hertford that had once been my home for a night. I sat by a fallen tree and closed my eyes, remembering the peace I had found in that secluded place just outside of London. A similar feeling was growing in me here. Sheltered by the trees, I could barely distinguish the traffic of the A4 any longer. Instead there was the gentle crackling of dry leaves dancing on the floor, and the clashing of bare wood against one another above my head.

Growing cold, I moved away from the embrace of the forest and descended onto the playing fields once more. The pungent smell of rotten apples announced its presence before I could see any of it. Back in December, the apples had seemed like Christmas baubles on the trees. There were now more of them on the ground and as the ice covering them had melted, they were releasing their sweet decaying fragrance in the air and for once I wasn’t tempted to bite into a fruit.

I walked away heading for Ilsyngrove wood. I climbed up through the trees, emerging into the Coots meadow. Facing me was a row of houses, the border of the open space clearly defined by their bricks. I envied the inhabitants for having this meadow right on their doorsteps and I hoped they knew how lucky they were. I turned around to descend into the wood once more but was stopped short. I was at the highest point of the Open Space and I could see for miles. There were hills and fields stretched out in shades of yellow and brown, blurring into the distance. I wondered where Bristol and Bath had gone for a moment. Having lived in London for so long, I wasn’t used at seeing unbuilt land from any vantage point in a city. And then, I remembered this was one of the reasons for the move. There were limits to Bristol, limits I could reach by foot or bicycle. The countryside was there for me to explore under my own steam. I didn’t need a train or a bus journey to reach it.

Walking through Ilsyngrove I barely noticed the ancient trees around me. My head was filled with the vision of the hills outside of Bristol and dreams of future wanderings on their footpaths and surrounding roads. Not looking where I walked, I eventually emerged onto the tarmac path and followed it home. Stockwood Open Space was no longer a dull colour on Google Maps. It was a green space with wide open areas interspersed with ponds, hedgerows, and woods. But more than that it was now mine. I had seen its colours under the sun, I had smelled its earth, I had touched its trees, I had heard its birds, I had tasted its air. The courtship had begun and I can’t wait to go back to it over and over again to witness it grow and die throughout the seasons.

Learning Portuguese and other 2017 goals

At the beginning of the year I didn’t make resolutions. I had vague ideas of things I want to achieve in 2017 but I didn’t vow to make them happen. This tends to put too much pressure on me and I end up not sticking to my goals.

So as the new year chimed, I let my ideas simmer and grow over January, finding time for them in my everyday life, seeing what was going to work and what wasn’t.

A month later, I’m happy to report that the goals that truly mattered have been incorporated into my life. Some are still unfulfilled, but I’m holding on to them and hoping to see them come to fruition later in the year.

In no particular order, here is what I’ve been up to:

  • Learn European Portuguese


    I’m making videos about my learning journey. It’s both a way to connect with other learners and assess my progress.
    Follow me on YouTube if that’s of any interest to you.
  • Record a sound every day


    I never planned for this goal, but as I began to take a photo every day, I thought it would be cool to add sounds to the themes. This however proved too difficult and I ended up simply recording random sounds. This is harder than taking a photo every day but I really want to make this happen. It is forcing me to focus on sounds more often, to really listen, and to make full use of my recording equipment. It’s only been a month but I already feel like I’ve learned a lot.
    Follow me on SoundCloud if you never want to miss one of my recordings.

Other goals include setting up a new blog, sharing the sounds and story from my journey through Spain and Portugal, going on a longboard microadventure, walking the West Highland Way with Zoe and Jenni, exploring the areas around my new home, and reading a book by a Portuguese author every month.

Have you set up goals and resolutions for the new year? If yes, how are you doing with them?

A 2016 retrospective

When I look back over 2016, I cannot deny that my trip to the Iberian Peninsula dominates my mind. I spent nearly six months away from home and the memories I created during this time are still vivid, feeling indelible. But 2016 wasn’t just about fulfilling my dream of cycle touring for longer than a week. It was filled with many other outings and experiences.

January

The plan was to go to Reading and cycle towards Bristol following Sustrans cycle route 4 along the Kennet and Avon canal. I was going to meet up with Pete whom I had last seen in September and we would make a week-end out of it. Only, Pete wasn’t feeling too well and I missed my train to Reading and found myself in Windsor instead. What followed was a very enjoyable winter day ride.

February

The ferry to France that marked the beginning of my cycling escapade was booked for late February, so my partner and I took the opportunity of left-over annual leave to book some time away. We ended up in Lyme Regis, enjoying long walks by the seaside and on the cliffs, retreating to a cosy B&Bs when night fell.

March
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My journey into the Iberian Peninsula began. Nothing was going according to plan. The weather was colder and wetter than expected, I got sidetracked from the Camino del Norte almost on the first day of it, and I ended up cycling in Spain for almost a month. But it all worked out for the best and those guys are the perfect illustration of it. They invited me for some coffee as I was waiting for the shops to open and we got chatting. They extended their invitation to their home for the night. We took the train to their place only to find out that the wife of one of the guys was not up for it. I ended up in Bilbao after another train ride where I met a man who led me to a hostel, saving me the struggle of finding it in the dark.

April
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I was finally in Portugal, the weather was brightening up, and I was discovering the most beautiful region of Portugal: the Alentejo (I may be extremely biased). I spent my time cycling under the sun, devouring Alentejo bread (that rivals French bread), eating freshly caught fish and amazing sausages accompanied by hand-picked vegetables. All while hopping from dam to dam sleeping by peaceful lakes in the company of other travellers.

May
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In May I discovered the joy of Warmshowers.org, frequently getting kidnapped by my hosts and learning more about the Portuguese way of life. This was also a time when I struggled with the fact that I was on my own and the company of strangers became essential to my well-being. Meeting the family pictured above was a blessing. They had been cycling from Morocco and were heading home (Belgium) via France and the UK. We spent a week cycling together and it undeniably became one of my fondest memory of the year.

June
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I was back in France, cycling long hours of flat straight roads in the Landes region to meet up with my father at the estuary of the Gironde river. It was almost Summer and although the weather wasn’t always up to it, the landscape certainly was with its long, long stretches of forest, immaculate beaches and lakes. It was idyllic. And so was the company of other cycle tourists.

July
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My partner came to France and we spent an unforgettable two weeks travelling between family members and city escapes. There were barbecues on an almost daily basis with beers, wine, and cocktails (and even a bottle of Champagne once). There were long swims and games in the pool. There were football matches and long hikes with my niece and nephew. But most of all there was the sun and long hours shared with my partner, my bicycle gathering dust in a shed at my grandparent’s home.

August
There is no record of August.

I was back in the UK and finally took the time to go through everything I’d recorded and photographed while away. But I didn’t stay cooped up inside. I made the most of the British summer and cycled to Bristol from London (and back) to be re-united with the Belgian family on wheels. I also made my first friends in Bristol, cycled 100 miles as it if was nothing for the first time, and enjoyed being alive and free for a little while longer before the struggle of house viewings and job hunting began.

September

I met up with Jonathan and we set off to walk the 1066 Country Walk, reacquainting me with my walking boots and the English countryside. The sun was still shining and I was full of optimism for what lay ahead.

October

I ended up in Wales sleeping in my tent once more for the #OutdoorBloggers week-end. There were new friends and the crackling of the fires, a long hike up Snowdon and nature all around. I was being reminded of what mattered in life. The strain of modern life and bills had led me to accept a job I barely tolerated. The week-end was all I needed to hand in my resignation.

November
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This was the lowest I had ever been this year. Landlords kept turning us down, job interviews didn’t work out (and the feedback was never helpful), and money was running low. I spent long hours on my longboard, the focus needed to acquire new skills obliterating every thoughts from my mind. But however long I stood on that board, I always needed to come home, to check e-mails, to apply for jobs, to arrange for viewings. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. My partner took me away for a much needed break in Sussex. We followed Constable’s footsteps and discovered Colchester, making me forget about everything else for a week-end.

December
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Not much outings other than walks and rides on Bristol many footpaths and cycleways. So I will only copy what I wrote a few days earlier on Instagram:

Five carefree months on the road when money was no issue (so little was needed, it could be earned easy enough). Four months struggling to find a job when money was a constant struggle (what with rent and food and transport to interviews). And finally today when I receive the first pay check of my new job (well-earned and much appreciated). This year has seen many ups and downs (literal and metaphorical) and I am grateful to end the year on a positive note. A new life lies ahead of me and to celebrate its beginning I treated myself to churros at the Christmas market. It felt overly indulgent and I savoured every last bit of it.

I hope your year was as good as mine but with less emotional roller-coaster.
Feel free to drop links of your best posts and 2016 retrospective. I’ve missed a lot while away and I’m really enjoying discovering what you’ve been up in the first half of the year.

And finally, as a little thank you if you’ve made it this far into the post, a collage of sounds from this year. This track includes sounds from my trip in the Iberian Peninsula, a little sneak peak of what’s to come in 2017.

Visit SoundCloud for a full description of the track.