The sea and me

I’ve lived in the UK for over five years now and I’ve come to realise how inescapable the sea is. It is the place where I can travel no further with trains or my bike. I come to a stop and imagine France, Canada, or Norway on the other side of where I am even though the distances and places are often obscure to me.

Of course, I knew before moving that Britain is an island. I’ve seen it on maps for years, looming over France in a history full of conflicts and complicated relationship. I’ve looked up at it, yearning to learn more about it before finally making the jump. But I never considered its border with the sea. You don’t need a boat to go to the UK nowadays, you don’t even have to acknowledge that there is a sea around it. I certainly ignored it.

But then, I went exploring the country and the smell of salt began to permeate my journeys. I took regular trips to the seaside, drawn to the edges of this new home of mine rather than to the lands inside. I saw the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters, I’ve walked along the rugged Jurassic Coast, I’ve watched the Irish Sea lap the coast of Wales, I’ve plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in Northern Ireland, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the North Sea in the Orkney Islands.

I come back again and again to the water, watch and listen.

Those are not the water of my childhood to be enjoyed and played in. Those I fear. They enclave me on an island and in an odd way I feel at their mercy. They could rise up and swallow the land. They lick the stone and melt the borders. They are mighty and I am frail.

I should avoid them, stay inland and explore the hills and fields of the countryside, safe on solid ground. But I don’t. Know your enemy, they say. So I travel to the seas. I explore their edges and familiarise myself with their rhythms.

The pebbles sing under my shoes, the sand hums under my bare feet, the waves mark the passage of time. I listened to it all and fell in love.

The ever changing seascape stopped being immense as I went from place and place and discovered local plants and scenery. Piers and sea defences made me feel welcome, myths and legends weaved stories through my head, and the raucous sound of the pebbles being called back to the sea and foam fizzing on the sand became a treat to be cherished by the shore.

Those are not the water of my childhood to be enjoyed and played in. Those I respect. They sing for me and in and odd way protect me and bound me to the land. They come and go, faithful and reliable. They wash over my feet and bid me welcome. They are mighty and I am humbled.

Alone on the isle of Hoy

In September 2014 I went cycle touring in Scotland and the Orkney Islands. It was my first cycle touring trip with a tent on the back of the bike. It was also my first time alone in sparsely populated areas where nature was everywhere. This is an account of my first day on the Isle of Hoy.

I stopped the bike and listened. There were no sounds to be heard. The boat was on its way back to the mainland by now. I looked behind me but there was no one to be seen. The few people who had disembarked were gone on other paths. I thought of the young woman I had talked to on deck before the wind carried our words away. She was heading to Rackwick on the west coast of the isle, like me. But I knew I wouldn’t see her here. She was not one for the roads. She was somewhere to my right, walking among the hills.

I looked at the road ahead and shivered. I took my phone out of my pocket. There was no signal. I glanced over my shoulders, tempted to cycle back to the pier. The boat was gone but there had been houses and a road going south, to Lyness where there would be more houses and even a hotel. I got back on the saddle and pushed the bike forwards. I was going to Rackwick.

My heart was thumping hard even though the road was flat. I tried to ignore it and immersed myself in my surroundings. The sky had disappeared behind the fog leaving me alone with the hills. They stood enormous above the ground as if coming from another world and it wasn’t hard to visualise the tales of a giant building this island as he threw lumps of earth around. My legs began to slow and it was difficult to keep a momentum going. I wanted to get to Rackwick and find the safety of the village but at the same time I couldn’t tear my eyes from the hills. They encompassed everything around me and in that instant felt like they were the entire world. And I, I was the only human in it, on a bike with a tent for only shelter and a few scraps of food in a bag. A chill ran through my body and settled in my legs, grinding me to a halt. I knew this was irrational. This was a very small isle, there were people around, and I was not in any danger. But reason was of no use. My frailty was too glaringly obvious between those hills and I had to face it.

‘I’m okay,’ I whispered tentatively. ‘The worst that can happen is a fall from my bike. I wouldn’t break anything.’ I paused, considering. ‘Would I?’ I took a deep breath. ‘No. I wouldn’t. And why would I fall from my bike? Stop being ridiculous and get back on it.’

I obeyed my own order, trying not to let my sudden fear of death take over me. I was starting to fall into a rhythm, the movement of the bike emptying my mind with each pedal stroke, when I saw stones protruding from the hill. I stopped, intrigued. This had to be one of the burial chambers the guide at Maeshowe had talked about. Maeshowe is a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave from 2800BC. I had visited it the day before and had learned about death rituals on the Orkney Islands from all those centuries ago when people were deposited into small chambers made of rock. I left my bike by the side of the road and followed the path leading to the grave.

History and legends had been what drew me to the Orkney Islands. All I had know prior to my visit was what the Arthurian legends had taught me, and I knew most of it was lies. I had wanted to find out for myself what those islands were truly like and how people had lived in the time of King Arthur’s legends. What I had found had been more fascinating than I could have imagined. A whole village from ancient times (between 3180 and 2500 BC) had been preserved at Skara Brae, stones circles still laid on the land free for all to visit, and burial mounds littered the ground. Those traces of the past were mostly left on their own, or so lovingly cared for you couldn’t help but feel initiated to their secrets when being guided through them.

This particular tomb (Dwarfie Stane) was a large rectangular slab with a small hole on one side. A smaller rock was placed in front of the hole, obviously carved out of the main block. How did people transport it here when all I could see was peat and heather? How did they carve such a block out of this huge slab? It was unfathomable to my mind. I knew that all those millennia ago, the world had been very different and there had been more people on this isle, but they hadn’t had the technology we have today. Carving a block of stone, and then creating two small chambers within the main block must have taken ages and be a difficult job. What had it meant to them? Why hadn’t they simply buried their loved one in the ground? All those questions remained unanswered as I explored this ancient tomb, sticking my head in the hole, walking around it for signs of runes and modern graffiti, and leaning against the smaller rock watching the circle of white the sun created in the grey clouds. Eventually I walked back to the road and pedalled towards Rackwick, my head full of questions and my fears extinguished for a moment.

As I approached the village, the road divided into a fork. On my right, I could continue uphill towards the village, or I could follow the road for a few more metres before it petered out into a footpath on my left. I wanted to walk to the Old Man of Hoy, a 449 feet high sea stack, and I knew I needed to go right for that but I veered left. I could see a motorhome before the start of the footpath and I was hoping to be able to pitch my tent next to them, but when I reached the vehicle I discovered that the parking area was entirely made of tarmac. Anxiety began to bubble inside of me and once again I forced myself to ignore it. Instead, I pushed my bike through the grass and leaned it against a toilet block before walking down to the beach. There was an old blackened out house at the edge of the sand.

‘You must go to Hoy’s bothy when you’re there.’ The words of the campsite owner I’d stayed at a few days before echoed in my head. This had to be the place she had talked about. It was as she had described it. Magical. A lone house by the sea with a garden plot on the side, it was easy to fall in love with the sight. But all I could feel were my hands trembling and my breath growing shallower. The shelter was only a few metres from the sea, barely raised from its level. What if the weather turned and a storm battered the beach? This was a stupid thought. This house had obviously been on that spot for many winters without being torn to pieces. This was a safe place to be. I knew it but couldn’t reason with my body. So I walked back to the junction and wheeled my bike to the village.

I didn’t know what I was hoping to find, but a hostel wasn’t on the list. I walked to the door, read the notice on it, and phoned the indicated number hoping someone would come to open the locked building for me or let me know where to collect the key. Instead a grumpy woman told me in no uncertain terms that without prior notice the hostel wouldn’t be unlocked but that yes, I could pitch my tent in the garden but that there was a bothy down by the beach. I hummed and agreed, relieved to be allowed to sleep in the garden.

There were a handful of houses around me, and although they were clearly empty I felt safe in their midst. Nothing bad could happen here miles above the sea level and away from the cliff edge. I leant my bike against a wall of the hostel and prepared a snack for the walk to the Old Man of Hoy.

‘Hey!’

I raised my eyes, a little unsettled to hear a human voice I recognised. ‘Hi,’ I replied to the young woman from the boat. ‘How was the walk?’

‘Great. How was the ride?’

‘Great’, I lied not wanting to reveal how scared I had been feeling since disembarking at Linkness.

‘Are you staying at the hostel too?’

‘Not really. They’re closed and when I called the number I was told no one is going to come unlock it as I didn’t book in advance. But you can try. They know I have a tent so probably can’t be bothered to come.’

She dropped her bag to the ground and tried the number but it quickly became apparent that she was receiving the same answer as I did.

‘Well I have my tent if you want. I only have a sleeping mat but if we spread some clothes on the floor I’m sure it’ll be okay and we can open my sleeping bag into a big blanket?’

We agreed this was probably the best course of action as there was no boat leaving the island before the following day. I finished packing my pockets with sweets and went to refill my water bottle from the tap in the shed. As I came out, I noticed a piece of blue plastic sticking from under a flower-pot. I lifted it and found a key ring full of keys.

‘Heather,’ I called from the back of the house. ‘I’ve found keys.’ I run back to the front of the hostel and excitingly inserted one of the keys in the lock. It fitted perfectly and under my command began to turn.

‘Tadam,’ I exclaimed pushing the door wide open. ‘We have a bed for the night.’

We giggled like two school girls and stuffed our bags in the entrance hall before pocketing the keys and setting north in search of the famous sea stack. The village receded behind us, the waves crashed at the bottom of the cliffs, and the wind ruffled our hair, all isolating us in a world shaped and dominated by nature. But I wasn’t scared anymore. I had a bed for the night and a friend by my side. I was alright.

Pedalling Portugal – Why am I going to Portugal?

If you’re following this blog or following me on Twitter you probably know by now that I’m getting ready to cycle in Portugal for three months next year. But why am I going?

This is a question that have weighed on my mind a lot. My answer was simple when I first came up with the idea for this trip, but as the months went by it grew in complexity and became plural.

But most of it was a lie.

When I prepared to announce my plan to my family and friends I became terrified that they wouldn’t understand my drive. So I searched for ways to justify myself. I was going to cycle in Portugal to launch a career based on my writing and sounds. I would come back and take up studying again, retrain into something new. My experiences in Portugal and what I would produce based on them would act as my portfolio to help me get into the school I had chosen.

I applied for a few grants to help me financially but really I sent my applications because I wanted to be able to say ‘See, my trip is not a whim. I have financial backing.’ I am now glad I did not receive those grants. They were just a mean to validate my trip in the eyes of others.

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In the few weeks when my trip was only an idea known to me, my reasons to go where entirely different. I wanted to get to know Portugal more intimately. I wanted to find a head-space I lose too easily in London. I wanted to explore writing and sounds at my own pace, without the clutches of work during most hours of the day.

I never wanted this journey to bring any money or to build a new career on the back of it. But as I started to talk about it to others, I felt those ingredients needed to come into play. So I began to make notes on how people made their living from travelling and exploring new places. I knew this was not the life I want to live but I kept on anyway because their stories fascinates me. I admire and on a certain level envy them. But what I envy is not their job but their passion. They love what they do and are driven by it. This was something I had and lost. I have been wandering ever since, letting myself be carried by the flow of life. I want to know again what it is to do something you love on a daily basis. And this is why I am going to Portugal.

Now is the perfect time, a moment when I don’t have many ties to hold me back, when I have no squabble leaving a job I don’t really care about. I have enough savings to allow for this trip and just about enough to scrap by when I come back. So I’m going to make the most of this privilege and explore what I love. Not for others, not for money. But for me.

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

Explore the darkness

Last week I went in search of darkness. In London.

You probably think this was a foolish idea and you’re right, but I still wanted to try. At night, London is a city filled with lights trying to reassure its citizens it is safe to go out. This has gone unnoticed to me for most of my life. But recently, I became aware of the concept of light pollution and city lights have begun to bother me. They disrupt wildlife and ecosystems, waste energy, and have banished the stars from most of our skies. They have also helped make people very uncomfortable with the dark.

I was recently walking home with my partner along the Thames Path and witnessed this apprehension. Her pace slowed and her arm tensed against mine as we reached Hammersmith Bridge on the south bank of the river. In front of us, tree branches concealed the path from the street lamps of the north bank. I didn’t care. This was a path we had trodden dozens of times and I knew it was safe, darkness having sent people  away. But my partner did not hear my words and we switched to the north side of the Thames where pubs were full of noise and the streets full of lights.

So, when I proposed the challenge ‘Explore the Darkness’ for Jonathan‘s monthly microadventure challenge, the first idea that came to mind was to go back to Hammersmith Bridge and walk a stretch of the Thames Path after dusk. I wanted to see if it really was dark.

Standing below the bridge, I could see the same emptiness as before filling the space under the trees. I smiled. For a while now, night-time had come to feel safe and almost alluring but it didn’t use to be this way. As a child, I could barely go to the end of my street for fear a wolf would attack me. This was ridiculous and I knew it, but I couldn’t help being overwhelmed with dread. I would often try to fight this feeling, forcing my legs to slow down and not break into a run, but I would inevitably lose. For almost a year, I have been wild camping every month and have come to know the world after sunset. There is nothing to fear from it, not in Britain anyway. I took a step forward and advanced towards the trees. Colours faded almost instantly into shades of grey, their nuances deepening as my eyes adjusted to the low light. It wasn’t as dark as it had appeared from the bridge. The illuminated structure had made it seem sombre.

I went on, knowing the vegetation would get thicker around the Leg O’Mutton nature reserve. Branches densified on my left while on my right trees expanded in an effort to grow into a small wood. I couldn’t see into it. I stopped and focused my gaze on it but I could only distinguish the masses of trunks. I remained on the path, thinking anyone could sleep here without passers-by noticing.

A hiss echoed in the distance and I jumped, not immediately recognising the sound. I laughed when I realised it only came from a cat. Darkness still held a sway over me. I rolled my shoulders and took a deep breath. A man walked past me, his smartphone screen turned on. He was using it as a torch but it wasn’t more than a glimmer. His pace was brisk and within a few minutes I lost sight of his figure. He had been engulfed by the shadows.

I carried on for a while longer, listening to the crunch of my footsteps on the leaves and the occasional quack from a duck. But soon the trees began to recede and street lights reclaimed territory on my left, bringing colours back to the trees. I stopped and leaned against a wall overlooking the Thames. The river was flowing black as ink, and above it, trees were an outline, their features painted black. But I knew it wasn’t really that dark. It was only a trick of the lights, their pollution distorting the views.

I carried on along the path, making for home but the world didn’t fade to monochrome again. The flats flanking the river shared too much light with me. I ignored it, glad to have found some darkness in London. It hadn’t been all-encompassing, it hadn’t lasted for long, and it certainly hadn’t allowed for stars but it had been there, fighting for its right to exist.

If you want to learn more about light pollution and how you can help reduce it visit darksky.org. It’s easy and you can really help. Unlike many other forms of pollution, this one is reversible.

If you want to explore the darkness further, I can highly recommend the Nocturne Podcast by Vanessa Lowe.

Sunset by the Thames

Sunset by the Thames from Allysse Riordan on Vimeo.

The days are still warm under the sun but a chill is coming. If I walk in the shadows for a few minutes, goosebumps will rise on my unprotected arms. Soon, it will get dark before I finish work and the commute back home will be completed under artificial lights trying to combat the darkness. But for now, there is still daylight and some heat to be enjoyed at the end of the working day. So last Friday, as a distant church rang five o’clock, I switched off my laptop, packed a jacket and flask of tea in my bike pannier and set off along the Thames Path. I was after the sunset.

I found a quiet spot behind the fences of Kew Gardens and settled down. I set up my camera to capture a few shots, poured myself some tea and sat down on the high banks to enjoy the view. The sun was beginning its descent in the sky, transforming into an orb or fire in the hopes to send the sky ablaze. It was a meagre attempt and only the clouds deigned to take on a hint of colour.

Down on the water, ducks and gulls were oblivious to the sky. Life was carrying on as normal for them. They paddled and flew, flirted with the water and occasionally dipped in. Undisturbed by the other animals, a swan lazily travelled on the river. I followed it with my eyes and became accustomed to its gentle speed. The tension in my shoulder eased away, my jaw unclenched, and I found myself leaning back.

When next I raised my eyes, the sun was disappearing behind the trees. Its flames were so bright I couldn’t stand to watch them for longer than a second, my vision turning into a white field. But it was difficult not too look. The orange glow was so compelling, its warmth drawing me in like a moth. I forced myself not to gaze directly at it, focusing my attention to the horizon behind the trees and the clouds above. Shades of orange and yellow had invaded the world. Everything was soft and mellow.

I heard the rocking of oars on the water and peered down. A rowing boat was passing by, its occupants gently navigating the river. They too had finished their work and were now idly heading back to their rowing club to store their boat away for the night. I observed them pass and noticed a fox watching them from the other side of the river. I smiled.

When the boat had disappeared at a bend of the river, I turned my eyes to the sky once more. The sun was falling. It was no longer blazing and only the bottom of the clouds still acknowledged its presence with a faded shade of pink. A minute went by, and then another, and without me quite realising it, the sun was gone. The horizon was a dull ochre. I wasn’t sure if it was trying to remember the colours of the sun or if it was tinged with the first signs or light pollution. I looked up to the clouds. They were grey once more and above them, the blue of the sky was becoming dull, as if someone had blown a thick layer of smoke towards it. On the grass, the hair of my arms raised themselves, vainly trying to capture my escaping body warmth. I slid my jacket on and spared a glance to the water below me for a last time. The reflection of the trees were dark now. I tidied my camera away, drank the last of my tea, and cycled away. The sun had set.

This post was submitted to In Which I, September microadventure challenge.