Coppicing at Stockwood Open Space

‘Does everybody know what coppicing is,’ Anna, from the Forest of Avon Trust, asked. The ten people facing her replied with complete silence in spite of most of the group knowing very well what it involved.

‘Well, in case someone is not sure, coppicing is a traditional management of woodlands,’ she began to explain. And I was glad she had chosen to. When signing up to volunteer my time to do some coppicing in Stockwood Open Space, I had only a vague idea of what it was. I had heard of it, and I knew the reasons behind it but I was very unclear about the details. I wasn’t even sure of the correct pronunciation of the word, having only ever read it.

‘We cut down young trees to ground level. This doesn’t kill them. They will regrow. What it does is allow us to harvest the wood, and manage the growth of trees in woodlands. We do it in rotation so different areas of woodlands are at a different stage of growth, providing a rich variety of habitats for invertebrates, birds, and other species.’

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I nodded, my vague notion of the term a little more concrete. Anna carried on talking about the growth cycle of woods before turning our attention to the tools and methods of coppicing. There were pruning saws, bow saws, billhooks, gloves, and hard hats. We were drilled through the safe use of all the instruments, paired up, and sent to work.

The group spread naturally through the areas and without further ado we began to saw the wood. I watched my partner cut effortlessly through small stumps and began imitating his gestures, pretending I had a vague idea of what I was doing. We pruned one tree, the stump and branches laid carefully to one side for later use. Moving to the next tree, I glanced at it and said ‘Should we start with the smaller surrounding shoots before tackling that bigger one?’ It was the obvious thing to do and didn’t need speaking about. But by voicing it, I felt like I was in control of the situation. I knew what I was doing now. There are many things I don’t know about coppicing, but the vague notion I had at the start of the day, had turned into something I understood and could explain to others.

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We carried one sawing, taking turn with the bow saw for the bigger stumps. Around us, the wood cracked and fell, the mud cushioned our steps, and Anna’s voice distilled advice and knowledge gained through years of work. She weaved her way between us, keeping a watchful eye on our gestures and collecting branches for the kettle she had brought.

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Slowly the ancient smell of burning twigs filled the air and we gathered around the fire for a cup of tea and a bite to eat. Conversations flowed easily, drifting away from woodlands and back to it as Anna told us we would build a hedge after lunch. The smaller branches we had cut down would be laid down between larger stumps to create a habitat for invertebrates. Ten people weren’t needed to construct the hedge so most people went back to their trees, finishing what they had began. But my partner and I had run out of trees to coppice, so we set out to gather the felled wood from the others to feed the hedge. Branches were laid down, more hands came to join us, and soon our wooden wall was taking shape and expanding fast. We had built a hedge.

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Taking a step back, I took it in. This had been a day’s work with ten volunteers. I could only imagine how long those tasks would take for a whole woodland. But then, we hadn’t used power tools, we had chatted a lot, and we had taken our time. But it had been good and expanded my skills and knowledge of trees. I smiled as I noticed other members of the group taking photos of the hedge. They too were proud of the work we had achieved.

Anna lingered for a while longer, answering our last questions before we all parted way, half of us carrying some of our work home for fire or whittling.

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Pedalling Portugal – Waiting for the beginning

I begin my cycle tour in (Spain and) Portugal on the 3rd of March.
From that point until June/July, I am unlikely to update this blog or any of my social media accounts. If you want to know how the journey went, be sure to follow the blog (button on the right hand side) to receive an e-mail when I’ll be back in the UK.

I look out of the window and listen to the birds. There aren’t many of them today. The world has turned grey and wet. I don’t really care. I’m sitting by the fire in my grandmother’s house. It is quiet and warm here. My family had gathered over the week-end, my journey an excuse for a get-together and conversations in the flesh rather than through Skype. They are all back to work or school now and I am left waiting. My train south only departs on Thursday.

I read, help my grand-mother with the kitchen and house, and take long walks during the day. In the evening, I watch some TV and repack my panniers endlessly. This is a pointless task. I have all I need and only the days and nights on the road will teach me how to best organise my bags. But I do it anyway.

My grand-mother asks me again about my journey. Everybody else doesn’t really bother and it suits me fine. We’ve talked about it enough before and my answers haven’t changed. I still don’t have an itinerary planned and nobody is worried about my safety – at least not outwardly. They know I will be fine. This is not the first time I do something like this.

So I wait in between a past that is gone and a future that has not yet taken shape.
It is a strange state to be in, as if my life has been placed on hold. I savour this moment of transition where I simply drift and relax. I can feel the stress of London shedding away from me. My movements have slowed and my thoughts stretched. I have time to ponder questions for hours now and it feels good. I think of the home I want to build when I come back to the UK but it’s too far off to consider seriously. So I empty my mind and wait.

Thursday will come soon enough. I can let my body and brain rest before I engage them everyday in the landscape and people I will encounter. Before I began to pedal.

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Pedalling Portugal begins in March 2016. For more information about this upcoming trip, visit this page.

A cycle tour in Kent – Part 02

Catch up with part 01 here.

I stopped the bike as the first hill came into view and dug in my pocket to get my inhaler out. I breathed in the small particles hoping for the best before climbing back in the saddle. My leg spun as fast as they could while the wheels of the bike slowly turned and made their way to the top. My breathing intensified and my heart pumped harder but I remained able to breathe freely. On top of the hill, I dismounted for a moment and looked down smiling. I was still out of shape but at least my chest wasn’t constricted anymore and it was impossible to deny that the climb had been fun. I put my feet on the pedals and pushed the bike forward, the descent carrying me closer to Ashford. The wind blew against my ears, roaring and deafening all other sounds but I didn’t care. I was freewheeling down the road, propelled on the flat at speed, and I had forgotten that I had ever thought of stopping this cycle tour at Ashford. I cycled in and out of the town before lunchtime, barely sparing a glance for its structure of steel and glass.

The sign pointed to a dead-end. I raised an eyebrow but followed it nonetheless, expecting a shared path would appear at the end of the street to take me away from the traffic. But Sustrans had other ideas. Before I could reach the first houses, the familiar sign pointed up a hill. I looked doubtfully at the path. This was not a road. This was a steep muddy footpath. I checked the sign but there was no indication that it had been dislodged. I pushed the bike up, carried it through two kissing gates and found myself at the edge of a wood, fallen leaves littering the undulating ground.

‘This is not a bike path Sustrans,’ I stated a little apprehensive of what was to come. I was not in the habit of taking to muddy footpath with a bike, especially not when the land wasn’t flat and I only had the front break partially working. ‘Oh well… let’s do it.’ There was no point in turning back. A forest path would always beat a busy road, even if I had to walk most of the way. I climbed on the bike and went on. The wheels turned surprisingly easily on the leaves and I gained confidence that this path would be alright. I stopped at Catha’s seat for a while and admired the views. Green fields were surrounded by brown skeletal trees. I could only imagine what this view would be like when everything was in bloom. I made a mental note to come back and check in springtime.

Back on the saddle, I was soon confronted with my first real downhill. I breathed in deeply, checked the brake a couple of time and let go. The bike went down and my adrenaline shot up. It was going fast, too fast. I applied pressure on the brake as the first bend appeared in the distance but the wheels slipped below me and I barely avoided a fall. I released the brake and focused entirely on the path in front of me, hoping nobody was walking their dog as the bike kept shooting down and I was utterly out of control, unsure of how I remained on the saddle through all the bumps and bends. But I did and eventually the road flattened out. My heart was pounding as I rejoined the road but I was grinning from ear to ear happy to have made it in one piece.

Canterbury came and went, its cathedral looming in the distance, as the Sustrans signs numbers changed from 18 to 1. I had no interest in cycling towards John O’Groats although the signs told me I was on my way. I was after the Crab and Winkle way. It had been a route I had often thought about, its name creating a whirlwind of pictures in my mind. I smiled at the sign and took a picture of it, proof that I had finally met up with this path. I must have looked odd among the other walkers and cyclists that day. They were all on a commute back home and I was excited like a child at Christmas. The way left traffic behind and took me between fields on muddy paths and forest trails. I considered stopping for the day but there was still daylight in the sky and I wanted to hear the sea. So I cycled on and rejoined the road at the outskirt of Whitstable. I headed straight for the beach, sparring no glance to my surroundings until I was sat on a bench by a small pebbles beach. The sun was falling fast below the horizon and I started to think of bed again. Sleeping on a beach has long been an item on my microadventure list but my body was aching and I was still undeniably very tired. Maybe I could find a hotel or B&B before settling for the beach. This cycle tour wasn’t about spending 24 hours outdoors but about fun. And I didn’t want to start the third day in a haze, pedalling only for the sake of it. So I went to the tourist office and found myself a warm room for the night.

It was just before 10am when I left the B&B and got back on the bike. As I found the cycle path that would lead me to the Viking CoastalTrail, I was happy with my decision not to have wild camped the night before. I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the sea wind.

I pedalled onwards on the concrete promenade by the seaside and reflected on the oddness of British people. It had always struck me as odd to meander so close to the beach and yet not to enjoy the clink of the pebbles under your shoes, and a paddle in the water no matter how cold. I quickly forgot the thought as my gaze got lost at sea, watching massive ships standing still in the water. There was a long line of them and I couldn’t help imagine a traffic light some miles off showing bright red. I was glad to be on solid ground with a path mostly to myself and no red lights in sight.

I continued on, feasting my eyes on the landscape and quickly reached Reculver where the Viking Coastal Trail began. Huge cliffs rose to my left and I was left alone with the sea. I slowed my pace to better watch the waves crash on the wall on which I was cycling knowing that soon the sea would not be my own any longer. The seaside resorts of Margate and Broadstairs were looming around the corner and I knew they would bring their share of houses, high-rise buildings, and mansions. I ignored the resorts, their shops, restaurants, and amusements parks desolate under the grey sky of December. The wind picked up and I battled my way into Ramsgate. I was surprised not to be greeted by arcades and tacky shops. Instead it looked like a normal town and I felt compelled to stop. There was still plenty of daylight left but this ride had been good enough. I was content, my stress completely shed away, and I was now happy to go back to my flat in London. But there was still one thing to do before finding the train station. I wanted an ice-cream. There was something about the seaside that demanded of me that I eat ice-cream. So I hunted the streets for an open shop, got myself a scoop of vanilla a scoop of pistachio before going back to the beach. I pushed my bike to the water’s edge and sat in the sand, ice-cream in hand.

A cycle tour in Kent – Part 01

‘Great,’ I uttered in annoyance as a strip of red on the computer screen told me the train I needed to catch to Kent would be delayed. I had planned to be in Tunbridge Wells before lunch time so I could have cycled out of it and be in the countryside to eat my sandwich. But this was obviously not going to happen. Frustrated, I shut down my laptop and finished packing my panniers as slowly as I could. Daylight was getting scarce and I didn’t really want to cycle at night but this train delay was giving me no choice. Panniers closed I brought them downstairs to the bike. I was ready to go. I looked at the bike. I have been riding on it for a few months now and it had lost its new shine. It was my bike with its scratches and dirty light reflectors on the spokes. I smiled at the idea of riding it for another destination than work in a long time and felt my annoyance vanish. I had three days cycling ahead of me. What did it matter if I was going to arrive in Tunbridge Wells a couple of hours later than planned? Eating my lunch in a train carriage wouldn’t be as scenic as on the top of a Kentish hill but then eating lunch on a hill was hardly the point of this small cycle tour.

The last time I had been on a microadventure had been almost two months ago. I had let November slip by without going out and enjoy the outdoors on the pretext that I had been too busy with work and other travels. I now realised how rubbish that excuse had been. I had just been too lazy to take a train out of London bound for the English countryside, and I was paying for it now. That previous week I had been on edge, work had become little more than a chore, receiving people had turned into a burden, and I was feeling tired all the time. I needed time out, time for myself traipsing about in the countryside.

I disembarked at Tunbridge Wells station two hours later than I had planned and headed straight for the hills. Within twenty minutes, I had left the busy roads behind and was cycling along small lanes that couldn’t fit two vehicles side by side. I rode past empty orchards, deserted farms, and private mansions. With each hill my breath caught in my throat and I felt my heart pumping too fast as I tried to familiarise myself with the bike gearing system. I cursed myself for not having done more exercise those last few weeks. I was out of shape and what should have been a relaxing ride was turning into an uncomfortable burn in my chest.

As dusk fell, I was happy to find myself at the edge of Bedgebury forest. It was the perfect excuse not to ride through the dark and set camp early. I freewheeled between the trees, my heart and breath resting for a while. On my right giant pine trees rose above a small lake. It looked idyllic from the road but somehow this part of the forest was fenced off. I pulled on the brakes at the sight of a gate. There was a sign announcing that this was the Pinetum at Bredgebury. I pushed the bike through the muddy path behind the gate and laid it to rest against a small toilet block. I locked a wheel, more out of habit than fear of theft. There would be no one to steal my bike in a deserted pinetum. I scampered down to the lake guided by my head torch and thought of setting camp by the picnic table. I could have breakfast with a view. But for the moment I meandered further in this tree refuge, the effort of walking on a flat terrain resting my lungs.

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Houses appeared in the distance and I could see lights behind glass windows. I went back on my steps not wanting to attract any attention. I walked past the lake and again thought of setting camp by it but when I reached the toilet block another idea occurred to me. It was supposed to rain that night and although I had my tarp with me, it would be infinitely easier to just sleep in the toilet block. I checked the time. It was only five o’clock. I decided to give it until six before unpacking everything. If there was a warden, surely they wouldn’t tour the pinetum after that time on a dark winter evening. I settled among the trees with some nuts to nimble on and began to read.

A couple of chapters later I found it difficult to ignore the grumbling of my stomach and decided it was time to empty my panniers. I pushed the ladies’ door open, pushed the bike in and one by one I unclipped the panniers. I laid out the sleeping mat, shook the sleeping bag, and began to sort out some food for the evening. As I dug into one the pannier’s pocket for my plastic spoon, my fingers came to rest against my inhaler. I took it out and shook my head. This had been why the climbs had sent my heart pumping so hard within the first pedal stokes. I had known my asthma had grown worse this past year, but I still had the same careless attitude towards it. It had never been so bothersome as to make riding a difficult affair in the English hills. I put it away in my jacket pocket so I wouldn’t forget it the following day and went back into the pannier for the spoon. I was too hungry to dwell upon my stupidity.

Dinner eaten and dishes washed, I settled into my sleeping bag with my book but I only managed to read a couple of pages before falling asleep. I awoke to the sound of rain hitting the metal roof and the wind sending leaves and twigs against the concrete floor outside. I felt glad to be indoors on such a night and went back to sleep. The next time I opened my eyes, it was morning. It was still dark outside but most people were already out of bed. I ate a quick breakfast and packed everything as quick as I could, not wanting to be discovered in the toilet. My body ached with tiredness and I barely managed to suppress a yawn as I climbed on the bike. Riding away from the pinetum I considered stopping my cycle tour early that day, the memories of the previous day’s pain still vivid in my mind.

Read part 02 here.

A year of microadventure comes to an end

Earlier this month I completed my Year of Microadventure – a year of enjoying the outdoors. Here’s how it went:

January
Start small
01 January

Starting small was a good idea, especially in January. I had a warm dinner at home before tucking my sleeping bag and sleeping mat in a unconspicous bag and headed for my local park. I slept relatively well but was woken up a few times by the cold. It was only in the morning that I realised it had been much colder than I had thought. The vegetation, my bag, my shoes, and everything else around me was glittering under the headtorch. It was mesmerising and in spite of being frozen, I couldn’t help but smile.

February
Of backgardens and birds
02 February

I had grand plans for my second microadventure but I sprained my ankle at the end of January and found myself unable to trek very far. So I opted for a night in my backgarden. It was like being a child again when your garden is a world of its own. This time I took the tent but still got very cold.

March
A foray into the woods
03 March

This was my first proper microadventure of the year. I planned my location in advance and had to take a train out of London to reach the woods. This was the month I truly got addicted to wild camping. I was not far from the city but I was still able to submerge myself in nature, forget my worries, and wake up to the songs of birds.

April
The Vanguard Way: words and photos
04 April

By April I knew I was going to walk a bit of the Camino de Santiago later in the year and I wanted to do some preparations. After some googling, I discovered that the Vanguard Way would take me from London to the coast. So I made the most of the bank holidays and wandered south. Although the weather and scenery were very different between this walk and the Camino de Santiago, the Vanguard Way prepared me well for what was to come in July.

May
The Vanguard Way: audio diary and soundscape
05 May

The previous month I had suffered the beginning of an injury on the Vanguard Way and had to give up before the end. So in May, I went back to the trail and walked to the coast. It felt like coming back to a friend, one that had blossomed into life. The vegetation was overflowing on the paths and everything around me was green.

June
A 5 to 9 microadventure
06 June

June has some of the longest days of the year so I decided to try a 5 to 9 microadventure in the middle of the week. I headed out of town after work and walked for a long while before settling in under the shade of trees for the night. I felt I had left my normal world behind and had entered a world of fairytales and wanderers.

July
Camino de Santiago: on the Via Turonensis
07 July

This was it, the Camino de Santiago. I had waited months for this trip to finally arrive and it did not disappoint. I meandered in the paths of France with a friend and together we suffered the heat of the sun but mostly we had a lot of fun catching up on our lives, gossiping and discovering an unfamiliar part of our birth country.

August
Moment of zen
08 August

I didn’t actually wild camp that month. I had been spending so much time outside already that when the end of the month arrived, it was a shock to realise I had not gone wild camping. I did however try my hand at making a video for the first time.

September
Deserted Dungeness
09 September

I met up in Rye with Pete (with whom I’d been chatting on Twitter) and we cycled to Dungeness. We discovered a surreal landscape made of pebbles, black houses, and nuclear power stations. It was odd to be lulled to sleep by the engines of a nuclear station but wonderful to witness a sky full of stars.

October
Walking the Lyke Wake Walk
10 October

I joined Jenni and Zoe from the Outdoor Blogger Network in the north of England for a crossing of the North Yorkshire Moors. Once again I did not wild camp (we had booked a B&B) but didn’t feel like I’d missed a microadventure. We trudged through the moors, clocking 20 miles each day in unfamiliar grounds, and were treated to the brightest fall colours.

November
missed
11 November

I missed this month entirely. The best I managed was an hour walk in the Irish countryside (on small roads), and a walk around a village in France. I used business as an excuse not to get out and paid for it in stress.

December
A cycle tour in Kent
12 December

I went out to explore Kent along Sustrans routes from Tunbridge Wells to Ramsgate. I ended up spending three days grinning like an idiot, and found out that in between motorways, Eurostars, ferries, and seaside resorts Kent has a very peaceful and beautiful countryside.

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All in all it has been a successful Year of Microadventure. It got me out of the door and built a habit of escaping London at least once a month. But most of all, it allowed me to meet like-minded people, start new friendships, and build a confidence in my outdoor skills I didn’t have. I still have a lot to learn but I no longer fear bivvying (I can even sleep reasonably well most times) and I can read maps again. So thank you Alastair Humphreys for starting such a great challenge. I am very much looking forward to another Year of Microadventure in 2016.