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.

 

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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.

The calm before the storm

clouds before stormwierd clouds before storm

After the hottest day of the year so far I headed in the evening down to the river, hoping to catch a bit of breeze and enjoy the sunset. Down by the river I knew I didn’t have long. Black clouds filled the sky behind me and a distant flash of lightening showed what was coming my way.

A cloud bank bought the storm to me, a rolling worm of cloud tinged pink with the light from the dying sun. It came  towards me huge and powerful, full of tense air and pressure. It was otherworldly and just a little frightening, a force far greater than me turned above and, behind came the wind, suddenly and out of nowhere, bending the willow saplings double. Forks of lightening cracked across the sky and I began to feel a little vulnerable standing on the end of a pier by the river, the only upright thing in a flat landscape.

I like lightening but it also likes me…a little too much. I was once in a house hit by lightning, blown off the side of a metal fridge I was leaning against with an almighty crack, I felt the lightening earth through me, fizzing its way through my blood stream and down into my boots. Another time I went to an interview in a thunder storm. As I opened the door of the interview room and introduced myself a bolt of lightening hit the ground just outside the office, blowing all the electricity out and making every member of the interview panel scream. After an entrance like that how could they forget me, needless to say, I got the job.

Now standing on the estuary as the sky lit up with my electrical nemesis I felt it best not to tempt fate. After all, the lightning, this time, might get lucky.

Water on the brain

Fancy a wild swim?

Fancy a wild swim?

Have been thoroughly immersed in reading Waterlog by Roger Deakin for the last few weeks. A book dedicated to the many joys to be had by wild swimming. Roger set out to swim his way through the British Isles, venturing into moats, rivers, lidos and sea with a reckless abandon which you want to stand up and applaud. He argues with officious river ‘owners’ and challenges the Environment Agencies insistence that our rivers are nowadays dangerous, polluted waterways likely to drag you into there depths or poison you with all manner of chemicals and mysterious sounding diseases.

Feeling keen to follow Roger’s example I poured over the map for village names which sounded like they might have once been the place for some waterbourne fun, but can find nothing so exciting as the fabulous Water-Cum-Jolly which Roger discovered near the Peak District. Undeterred I turn to the internet and swiftly find some wonderful maps detailing all the outdoor swimming locations in my area. Some are well known to me but others show swims in rivers and gravel pits. I am tempted but then I remember that wild swimming and I have not exactly worked that well in the past.

Following a hot day last summer surveying out on the marshes, I had flopped down beside a wide weedy pool where rudd and sticklebacks swam lazily in the black depths, it was too inviting. I stripped off and sunk to my waist, balancing on a shelf. I knew all the reasons not to jump in, the danger, the isolation, the mobile phone left on the bank but what is a life in which you never dare to take a risk. I belly flopped in, scaring the fishes, thrashing around on top of the Canadian pondweed, giving myself a scare, whaling back to the bank and clinging breathless to the grass before hauling myself out with life protecting super strength.

At this moment wild swimming did not seem the blissful, ‘one with nature’ tranquil experience that Roger Deakin would have me believe but at least I had tried.

I lay on the bank, duckweed sticking to places it never wanted to be, the sun warming my body revealing its newly earthy watery fragrance. A naughty 21st century forbidden delight of being naked outdoors. A bi-plane buzzed overhead, I vaguely hoped it was not Google Earth photographing the land. Would my white form be forever immortalised on world maps? Puzzling generations of viewers over what it might be.

A cormorant swam underwater, easily, nimbly, hunting for fish, it surfaced beneath me, nothing I could do to prevent it getting the fright of it’s life, it dived again and I watched the silver sheen of air washing over it’s feathers.

Maybe I should learn my lesson, leave the pools and rivers to the fish and the cormorants and to those more naturally adapted to there delights. At this time of year, when it is wet and windy and frankly horrid outside then it is easy to think sensible thoughts, but, as I plummet back into the delights of Waterlog, I know that, come summer, it will all be too too tempting once again.

Solvitur Ambulando

untitledTuesday proved to be a fitting end to the survey season as I trudged across miles of marshes in the driving rain. It could have been hideous but, like many things in life, being outdoors in the winter is all a state of mind.

On this occasion, the wind and rain in my face and the vast flatness of the landscape were what I needed. I needed to think and walk under sullen skies with swirling flocks of lapwing and starling overhead. Stonechats hunkering in the bramble, herons, with faces as thoughtful as my own.

The weather helped, the rain in my face and the fact that there was no one but me abroad. The world so empty that it was like walking around in your own head with a window to the outside world, a feeling enhanced by being encased in layers of waterproofs.  Solvitur ambulando, You can work it out by walking. Today it helped. I came to a decision while leaping a gate.

Unfortunately I had leapt down into a field of cows. Cows are not my favourite creatures, particularly gangs of heifers as these were. My own internalised problems took a back seat as I was faced with the more immediate difficulty of dealing with a bunch of feisty teenagers, egging each other on to take a swing at me.

“What’s that? Let’s have a look, go on Tommy, have her.” The lead cow fancied his chances and bundled over.

“Back off,” I said. “Back off, I want no trouble. I’m just here to look at that ditch and then I’m gone from your life.”

The cow looked at me with soulless eyes and at that moment I could understand why the devil is cloven hooved. The others pushed and shoved at the back, climbing on each other for a better look. I banged my stick on the ground.

“Geeeerrrrrrtttttt offfff.” I warned trying to sound farmer like and authoritarian. They only took it as a sign that I must be a provider of food and came closer. I was becoming surrounded, with my back to a barb wire fence and a railway track. My heart was pounding and stories of people crushed by cows played out it my head. If I was trampled in this spot then no one would find me for days.

I was reminded of the scene from the film Withnail and I where Withnail gives instructions from the safety of a nearby field. “Hold your bag up. Run at it shouting.”

I looked at this wall of bulk and horns and ran at it. “Ra, RA,” I shouted and slapped the nearest one with my stick. They  backed off, hooves flayling. I pounded away across the field before they could change their mind and reached the level crossing, climbing on top of the locked gate I felt victorious.

“Sucks to you.” I shouted back at the herd, jumped off the gate and almost got squished by an oncoming train.

The survey season and my own concerns almost ending in spectacular fashion.