Walking with a purpose

I have some dim idea why I love these little characters so much because they were the first gulls I learned to distinguish out of the group which I had always just seen as “seagulls”. I was puzzled enough by their red legs and beaks with black tips to get a bird book and find out what they were called. That was years ago and so now I know they’re black headed gulls – which caused a many a problem because it turned out they were only truly black headed in the summer. But they turn up here most winters; sometimes they stay and sometimes they go on somewhere else, and since I first noticed them I’ve learned a good deal more about them, but I love their delicate flight; the way they make the herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls who also live here look a bit lumpy – and, they’re here at the moment. These two were on the river bank immediately below the church where we often see peregrines – there was one there today. This isn’t unusual, we also saw wagtails, robins, blackbirds, pigeons, moorhen, mute swans and a lone Canada goose. The heron has been missing for a couple of days but he’ll show up again in one of his favourite haunts.

It was here on this walk that I learned to separate the ragworts; to find pellitory of the wall and half a dozen other medicinal herbs growing wild; here I noticed winter heliotrope and not – as I first thought – coltsfoot. Here too the wild lettuce that doesn’t look the least bit like the stuff on your plate. We do the same walk pretty well every day; come rain or shine. It’s about 8 Km which gets us over the 10,000 step line and passes a couple of local shops that we use. That means that we walk around 10 kilometers most days and it’s not in the least boring because it’s never the same two days running.

If I was trying to make it sound a bit posh I’d call it a transect – an ecological technique that helps us to understand an environment by walking the same path as regularly as possible and recording what you find there. It takes a while but eventually you kind of make friends with it, to recognise the old stagers and the newcomers and to rehearse their names so often that they stick in your mind. Depending on the season we could focus on birds or plants; insects (not too sharp on those) or butterflies and if anything the walk becomes more interesting each time we do it. Naturally there are other walks in much sexier places where we can marvel (gawp?) at five star rarities but there’s nothing in the world to beat finding one of them in a dark corner of a familiar place. We know the proper names of some of the fishes that congregate near the surface of the water in the summer, we watch the river in spate and at its lowest time in a dry summer. There are things we’d love to see – like otters – and I’m sure one day we will. The local natural history society – there’s a link on this page – runs a great facebook group where we can see things we’ve never seen ourselves and check out an identification with some hardcore experts if need be.

Walking is the most tremendous activity when you want to think. Our days are pretty standard; two hours of walking, three quarters of an hour of weights, two or three hours of writing and the rest on the allotment, cooking, eating and reading. When I write it down it looks almost monastic and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Walking grounds us, gives us a couple of hours when we can talk or be quiet and where we can find a perspective on the troubles and worries of life, and it provides me with an endless source of reflection – much of which finds its way on to the blog.

Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau, Santayana and a host of deep ecologists, poets, writers and pilgrims have all found comfort and inspiration in walking, so I reckon the evidence is in. I’ve always kept notebooks and sometimes the notebooks became journals and they’ve been the most important source of inspiration for me. So often, reading back on an everyday, common experience can suddenly flood it with light – “oh so that’s what was going on”. A walk can be an almost symphonic experience that might one moment be prayer, or contemplation, or remembering, or just filled with wonder and delight or perhaps a simmering grouse, or an anger that’s needing to be dealt with. Let them come, and let them go. And that’s not to mention the fresh air, occasional sunshine and the natural history waiting to be recorded.

It’s November, almost official winter and yet today we saw herb Robert in flower, winter heliotrope with its odd perfume, so difficult to describe; nipplewort; a couple of vagrant marigolds on the canal bank and the initial rosettes of a dozen pathside herbs that look lovely even as they are. It’s so easy to be sniffy about ragwort but really, its leaves are lovely in their prime condition.

Sitting on my desk at the moment is a piece of lichen that I picked up last year. If I sprayed it with water it would come back to life, and under the microscope it becomes a miniature world; a kelp forest an inch across. There are bits of dried grass and a pencil sharpener; with all the books and apparatus I need to continue the walk in my head later. It’s so much bigger and richer than just boring old exercise; making up the 10,000 steps. Oh yes, walking is good – good for the legs, good for the mind, good for the spirit too. It takes some ordinary – you might say thin – time of course, but renders it thick, rich and deep like good soil. Sure you might add the biochemical changes and dismiss it all as so much dopamine and you’re free to do just that; but I prefer to think of each walk as another voyage of the Potwell Inn Beagle.

*If you want to explore the philosophy and history of walking rather than read books about routes you might like to look at Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust”. I thought it was a superb book when I first read it and I’d recommend it without hesitation.

Oh yes there are!

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I’m not sure whether what we do here amounts to serious research of any kind, but when noticing plants or wildlife takes a step up and becomes systematic, the data that’s recorded takes on a life of its own, especially in unregarded areas where developers may try to push plans through without leaving time to do proper longitudinal surveys.  These kind of surveys are the lifeblood of natural history, and over time the gathered data becomes more and more significant, because what’s never been recorded can’t be counted as lost. For once it’s a great help to be old, because we know what we’ve lost – but it’s not a great experience.

We have a favourite walk into town which – if we walked the quickest route would take us right to the centre in ten minutes. But if we follow the river to the point where the canal enters it, and then follow the canal as far as Sidney Gardens, doubling back through the gardens and up Pulteney Street it’s about five times as far but a hundred times more interesting.

Spotting plants can sometimes be a race against the strimmers, for instance the Tansy I photographed only a few days ago had been strimmed off when I went back two days later. On the towpath, tidiness reigns – it’s an unnecessary pain, but the council seem unable to resist it.  The riverbank is a different matter, though, and all sorts of anarchy  breaks out there, offering a feast of weeds both rare and common as muck, growing through the supermarket trolleys.  Who cares? they’re all lovely.  Then there’s the park, where there’s always something unplanned happening in the borders and the long grass – (steady on, I’m talking about plants here) – and finally the streets which have a good deal more botanical interest than you’d ever imagine. What the long route takes in time it repays in interest and, over the years, you get to know where to look for old friends with the ever present possibility of spotting something new.

IMG_20191228_141232I wrote yesterday that I was just longing for some sunshine and a few flowers, and today I half hoped I might spot an early flowering Coltsfoot so I had my eyes firmly on the canal bankside when I spotted a plant in flower. I’d seen the leaves in a dense patch for a couple of years, and I’d guessed it might be Coltsfoot or Butterbur but I couldn’t be certain.  It was one of those plants that you know you need to identify properly but never get round to doing because you half know the answer. The fact that my mystery plant was in flower today – at the end of the year – meant it could only be Winter Heliotrope, a close relative of butterbur and, for that matter, Coltsfoot too.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to have named the plant.  It may be as common as could be, but suddenly a stranger became a friend, along with all the others I’ve identified along that length of the canal. The last time I spotted a large clump of Coltsfoot I was on my bike cycling around the Severnside villages after a snowstorm. They glowed at me from the verge and I could almost warm my hands on them. I knew those villages and their plants really well after 25 years, and after 4 years in Bath I’m just beginning to experience the same feelings. Finding a new plant can almost make you break out in a jig.

So today was a day in which at least one wish was granted, but there was another. I mentioned the other day that I was lusting after the 4th edition of Clive Stace’s “New Flora of the British Isles”. I was taking a secretive peep on the computer this morning and Madame said “why don’t you just buy it?” . “Because it’s £59”, I said, in an outbreak of inexplicable candour – I usually lie about these things and round them down a bit, well a lot. “You’ve got a book token and some loyalty card tokens – use them too” .  I needed no persuasion and so at the end of our walk we wandered into Waterstones and I ordered it. The shop assistant looked it up and said  – I guess trying to warn me – “It’s £59“. I raised myself to my full 5’8”, put on my most condescending smile and assured him that I did know – it was such a delight! I love books.  I even sniff them when I think no-one’s looking, because no Kindle ever came close to the smell of fresh printing ink and good paper.

So that’s two lovely things about today, and the third was the roastie tonight when I cooked our own potatoes, celeriac and parsnips. I boiled them for as long as I dared and then dumped them in olive oil in a horrendously hot oven, giving them a little crush about halfway through. They were the crispiest, fluffiest roasties I’ve ever done. Life is good.