Take the country back

me on bridgeYesterday I felt as if the countryside had been taken from me.

Since going freelance a month ago I have been using the time I would have previously spent driving along a motorway to my, now ex, office to jog down to the estuary, sit and enjoy the morning light and the calls of the birds feeding on the mudflats before jogging back through a nature reserve. I’m not saying I have stuck to this routine every morning or that my jogging amounted to much but the thought of the beauty awaiting for me down at the river got me out of bed most days.

Yesterday, however, on my way there I was stopped by a women. “Was I going to the river?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Did I know that several women had been attacked there in the last few weeks?”

“No, I bloody well didn’t.”

This had been the background fear since I had started. I am someone who spends days on end walking in isolated parts of the countryside for my job but I knew that this was different. This was a routine, that someone could watch and wait for. This was not the back of beyond but enclosed patches of woodland at an early hour when few people were around. I refuse to be driven away from the countryside by the mere thought that something might happen but every morning I had turned off the road into the reserve with images of women who had followed similar routines and been found murdered.

I headed down to the river anyway, jogged through the woodland, sat in my familiar spot but I couldn’t enjoy it. I was jumpy. I was planning what I would do if someone leapt on me. Part of me, the slightly insane part of me, thought. ‘come and try it if you think you’re hard enough,’ and pictured scenarios where I bludgeoned my assailant into submission with my water bottle or poked him in the eye with my door key but I knew that to continue with this routine was reckless. This man had attacked women in exactly the same place and at the same time as I had been, how I had not seen him was a small miracle. I walked home, down the road, feeling like the morning sun and the birds had been stolen from me by this power crazed psycho.

But today, I thought, NO. I will not be scared away from the morning, or the country or the river by one person. I dug out my map and my bike and planned a new route, finding a beautiful cycle ride through quiet lanes down to an equally beautiful point on the river. After all, if I am to be honest, jogging was never me and I have always been more of a cyclist. I returned with rosy cheeks, at peace with the world and feeling jubilant that I had found a way to take the countryside back and not, through fear, become another victim of this man.

 

Show and Tell

Anthony Albright

Anthony Albright

The days are growing shorter but there is still just enough light and warmth in the day to spend it camped in my summer house continuing to write Estuary Life. The first few chapters have now been battered into some sort of shape and, after a final edit, will be ready to go out to my band of readers.

I am wary. It is one thing sitting in the summer house writing my thoughts, another, revealing these thoughts, revealing myself, to the world. As an essentially private person I am not sure of the wisdom of this. Still, I write to be read and I try to write the truth as I see it so I need to be brave and send it out.

I had a moment of revelation yesterday when I thought of an ending for the book. I still have some of my journey to complete and anything could happen between now and then to change things but I still felt that thrill of creativity at discovering a little pearl of an idea.

This is why I write, for that moment of creativity when it all comes together and you discover something which surprises yourself.

A Remarkable Man

Graham and I.

Graham and I.

This week I returned to College Lake, a fantastic reserve created from a chalk quarry by one of the most inspirational men I have ever met.

I was lucky enough to be Graham Atkins summer warden in 2004. I spent a few months living in a converted caravan on the reserve and working alongside Graham, a few short months which were some of the best of my life.

This week I went back to College Lake for a memorial service for Graham who had died in June. I dug a hole to plant a tree, the final thing I could do for him.

There was no one I admired more than Graham. He had been a lorry driver for the quarry company but had a deep love and knowledge of nature. He saw the quarries potential  and through a mixture of charm and bloody minded determination convinced the quarry company to let him come up with a plan to turn it into a reserve.

Everything at College Lake was hand made through the efforts of the team of volunteers he discovered and inspired. Following his leadership they had built countless hides, a  museum full of ancient farm machinery that Graham had acquired over the years, a 2nd hand bookshop, tracks and trails leading up and down the quarry and fantastic habitats for a variety of wildlife which inhabited the place.

Each morning we would sit around Graham in the tea room, known as ‘The Bothy,’ listening to his stories and hearing about his latest idea for the reserve. If Graham had an idea on Monday then you would be creating it on Tuesday, there was no waiting for a committee to decide, no waiting for a funding application, no waiting for planning permission, you just got on with it. For someone coming from the world of big organisations it made a refreshing change.

Graham once joked that, when he died,  he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory on a funeral pyre set adrift across College Lake. I had laughed and told him I would  light It. I would have done as well. This would have been a fitting end for a man of this calibre, honoured like the Viking God he was, but it wasn’t to be.

College Lake, the College Lake of Graham and I, has gone, vanished into a education site run by the Wildlife Trusts and I can know longer do him this service, the best I can do is dig a hole for a tree. It is something but it is not enough.

I wasn’t sure when I returned this week how I would feel about the site without Graham. In the years since  ill health had forced him to retire then College Lake, to me, had become Graham. Graham was what I loved and went to visit. But still, this week, working on site with some of the original volunteers, it was still there, he was still there and the person that College Lake bought out in me still existed. I become my best self at College Lake. Graham gave that to me too. He made me believe in myself, value myself, know my own worth.

At his funeral earlier this year they said that Graham was a man who showed that you can make your dreams come true. He was a lorry driver, who created a nature reserve, inspired and changed the lives of the people around him and won an MBE.

Graham was my marker in life, my touchstone, my centrepoint, the person who gave me the standard of how to behave to those around me. His legacy was to teach me how to treat the people who worked for me, with respect and gratitude.

He was a most remarkable man and I am forever grateful that our paths crossed and I had the honour of knowing him.

Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Reaching Spitend Hide; triumphant celebrations at facing my fear

Reaching Spitend Hide; triumphant celebrations at facing my fear

Just returned from the next leg of my trip across the Estuary. Have just spent three days walking the marshes of Sheppey, not an easy task for a girl with a phobia of Daddy long legs:

Elmley Marshes 5th October 2014 

It is a golden and glorious autumn morning  but my heart is full of fear at the miles of horror that lay ahead. It is a sunny day after rain, the absolute worse conditions for me to set out in. I have no idea how I am going to make it across the marshes. Already I can see them, ranks of them, lined up on the pot plants outside the door of Steve, the estate manager house, spindly legs and click clacky wings. It is the height of daddy season, there are at least ten on this very plant, how many more are out there?

 

Daddy-long-leg,  Jackaranga

Daddy-long-leg, Jackaranga

As I climb Elmley Hill , the grass shivers with them, the day is warming up, they are feeling perky. One belly flops across the sky in front of me, arms and legs splayed backwards, ‘wheeee,’ it’s whole body seems to say, ‘here I come, for your face.’ I feel the fear rising, the adrenalin levels shooting up, all common sense leaving me as the phobia takes hold. I make myself walk on. I know the view is spectacular from the top of the hill. I must make it, I must go on, because what is the alternative? Run back to the car park and call a cab to take me home?

view from Elmley Hill

view from Elmley Hill

At the top of the hill daddies leap up around my legs, a leg touches my hand, I squeal and shake it off. I hear rustling in my hair and fling off my hat and sunglasses, jumping around on top of the hill like I have been stung by hot coals, shaking my hair out frantically. ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ I tell myself. I am on top of the hill with millions and millions of bodies writhing around me and I can’t enjoy the view of the sweep of the Swale around the island and the glass smooth water of Sharfleet Creek, but now I am here I can not just teleport myself elsewhere, I have to get off, I have to walk through them.

‘Look up,’ I tell myself, ‘Look up and enjoy the view, enjoy it Carol, DO NOT LOOK DOWN. You are going to have to do this today. This is likely to be the worst test you are will ever face but you are going to have to face it’

I prepared myself as best I could, tying back my hair, arming myself with my map case and mini tripod and then I walked, because I had to, through clouds and clouds of these creatures, they touched my hands, hit my face, clattered in my hair and I just kept walking I have no idea how.

In the last few weeks people had said I was brave for all sorts of reasons. Brave for leaving my job and going freelance, brave for walking in the countryside on my own, brave for staying at the homes of people I had never met. I knew different, you cannot be brave about things you don’t really fear. I knew out of all the acts of bravery I had supposedly performed, that this, this walking through long grass on an autumns day, facing a creature which had previously sent me into meltdown. This was the only thing that was really brave.