Along with most of the country / world we have begun to tentatively come out of lockdown. Adhering to the ever changing guidelines, and sometimes even deciphering them has proven quite tricky at times so like everyone else we have been using common sense and our own risk assessments to decide how and what is safe for us and those around us. This is also balanced with understanding that we don’t (collective we rather than personal we) know enough about the virus to make fully informed decisions every time but that there are some choices which feel the lesser of two evils as well.
Our very first meeting up with people was with some local friends on a beach part way between our two homes. It was all four of us and all four of their family but just two households. We drew a literal line in the sand of the beach to maintain social distancing and all bought our own picnics and beach day supplies and had a wonderful time swimming, chatting and just catching up. We finished the day with a game of pebble bowling.
That was the cue for managing to start small groups of our regular Sunday swimmers meeting up again. Also maintaining big distances between us as we swam – the benefit of swimming in enormous lochs is there are no lanes! It was weird not to hug, to offer a shoulder to balance on while getting changed again, or to accept a swig of each other’s hot drinks post-swim, or to share a car when we decided there were too many jellyfish in our usual sea loch and decamp to a slightly further away freshwater loch for the peak of the hot weather / jellyfish season. But we adjusted and it was just lovely to be back in the water properly and sharing it with friends again.
We did have a slightly surreal breaking of lockdown with our first visitors to our house (all within guidelines, maintaining distancing and wearing masks) but one we are as yet not able to talk about. All will become clear there in due course but it was a lovely catch up with some old friends.
We had been poised on both sides of the Atlantic to get Megan here to us as soon as we could having had her and Davies’ summer plans involving some time for them both in the US, some time for them both in the UK and a large amount of travelling around together utterly scuppered. We decided that the best way of them having any time together was for Megan to come here for a long stay. That allowed for a 14 day quarantine post travel for Megan leading to her being part of our household. The travel for Megan was not without drama, not in any way of Megan’s making and a disappointment in our authority figures and people who’s job it is to keep us all safe rather than intimidate and bully not quite being their best selves, but on an afternoon in July Davies and I finally scooped her up from Inverness airport and bought her home. As with both her previous trips it is just lovely to have her here with us, part of our family and here for a good long stay including several seasons and lots of celebrations.
We had a ‘late’ 21st birthday celebration for her once she had settled in with all her favourite foods and over a month it it feels like she has been here forever.
One of the most sadly cancelled events during lockdown had been a trip to Northern Ireland at Easter. We usually manage to see our friends there 3 or 4 times each year. We had been with them in London in February but had housesitters lined up to come and stay at our house giving them a small holiday while we all went to Northern Ireland. Everyone’s plans were being cancelled at that time but we kept a close eye on how we might be able to make that trip happen again as soon as it was safe to do so. In the end we were not able to safely arrange house sitters and Ady was not able to take the time off work so Megan took his deferred ferry ticket and I took Davies, Scarlett and Megan for a week in August.
Outside of the actual travelling (in our own car, then on a ferry either outside or at great distance from other travellers wearing masks, then collected by our friends at the ferry port – it all felt very safe) we had not been in any risk filled situations and our friends work from home and had also not been in any high risk situations so it felt pretty sensible. Of course once there sensibility was not high on the agenda and a week of fun, laughter, singing, good food, plenty of drink and not nearly enough sleep was had.
As lockdown has eased further we have had two sets of houseguests ourselves. Regaining that human contact again with people sat close enough to touch and getting all of the joy of seeing real faces rather than zoom screen replications, hearing laughter without the time lapse and actually being able to talk all at once was just wonderful.
Our holiday cottage cleaning has started back up. With increased workload and new cleaning protocols, including PPE. It’s been good to dance with Henry again! It’s been perhaps less of a delight to be wearing masks while doing so.
There are more updates on new things we have been starting up but this is probably a long enough ‘coming out of lockdown’ post. Next up is a return to our tried and tested post formula of a bad, good and learned during this strange period of our lives.
It’s been another whole month passed without a post. Oops.
Rather than one big long post of everything I’ll spilt up some of the updates into separate posts. So here is what has been happening in the garden.
After turning the spare room (south facing, large window) into a greenhouse during lockdown we actually needed the spare room as a bedroom again so the tomatoes, chillies and peppers which had been doing really well in there needed to be moved. My mini greenhouse which has been excellent for germinating all of my seeds since February but has required a fair bit of shoring up / repairing and TLC was finally emptied of everything except a couple of trays of salad and some courgettes.
I’d bought a replacement plastic cover as the original was in tatters after several repairs so Scarlett and I untangled all the tomatoes which had grown into each other, repotted some which had grown into monsters and then carefully moved them into the greenhouse. We created a criss cross of twine for the trailing stems to be supported on, put trays to stand the pots in and water from and removed some of the side shoots which were not going to be productive. There were several flowers and even one tiny green tomato forming. Since the move I’ve been feeding them and have lots more unripe fruits and lots more flowers. Hopefully the slightly more breezy location outside and the pollinating bugs who can get in will help with a bigger crop.
We did the same with the chillies and peppers although there are no flowers on them yet but the plants are looking nice and healthy. I can always bring them back inside if it starts to get too cold for them out there.
The first sowing of salad leaves which we had been cutting and harvesting regularly had finally gone over. Some of the lettuces had bolted and gone to seed so I left the flowers to form seed heads before I picked them off and left them to dry out. I bought them in and have had them in a paper bag on a sunny windowsill for a couple of weeks until they are fully dried out. They are now stashed away ready to try sowing next year.
The strawberries have pretty much finished fruiting and flowering. Whatever variety I have (they came from about 10 tiny plants I bought several years ago on Rum and let throw out runners each year, splitting and transplanting them many times.) are obviously early season ones. The plants are flourishing and have sent out plenty of runners here in their bed so I’m hopeful of a good harvest next year. This year has been a fairly small crop but we’ve certainly enjoyed strawberries and cream, strawberries and meringues and strawberries in sponge cakes enough to more than justify the space in the garden and the tiny amount of looking after the plants have required this year. There are a couple of small brambles making themselves at home in the garden which I am actively encouraging too in the hopes of some blackberries later this year.
I have enjoyed mixed success in my raised beds. One has a bumper crop of peas in the middle. I have already harvested about 10kg of mange tout, sugar snap and peas including the ones picked off by various people in the household to eat like sweets. The plants grew way higher than any I’ve ever grown before and my hazel twigs to support them were very quickly outgrown as a pea forest emerged. I had such good germination rates than I soon lost track of which variety was which and stuck all the different ones in together. Next year I would space my succession sowings out a bit more, be stricter about keeping sugar snap and other varieties a bit more separate and give them rather more ambitious stakes to clamber up.
The reverse is true for my beans! No one other than Ady likes broad beans or runner beans here so I’d gone for fine green beans / dwarf beans / french beans. I had created a lovely arch for them which clearly gave them an inferiority complex and they are barely 10cm tall. They have been mostly eaten by slugs but I note a few flowers and tiny beans just holding their heads above ground level. So I may have sufficient harvest for one portion for one person as long as they are not too hungry!
The other crop in that bed appears to be inhabiting a cursed bit of ground. My early hopes for a chinese cabbage crop were dashed by them reaching for the sky and bursting into beautiful yellow flowers. Despite cutting off the flowers regularly the plants just kept throwing them out which was an obvious siren call to the slug population who came and ate all the leaves. I have since learned that I perhaps sowed them a little early, which coupled with the early heat wave meant they had little hope anyway.
I pulled out the sad remaining stalks and replaced them with some promising looking pumpkin and other squash plants consoling myself that at least I had space for them. The slugs heard me and laughed. Which is rude… laughing with their mouths full….there is no remaining evidence of my pumpkins or squash plants.
Ditto the cabbages I lovingly sowed, pricked out, tended to suitable established little plants and put out next to the peas. The same fate befell the first row of rainbow chard I had grown from seed. I bought some replacements from a friend who is setting up a gardening / plant selling business. So far there are still two small rainbow chard plants…
In the other raised bed I have about 10 cauliflowers. 1 has a head, none have many leaves but as we don’t eat the leaves anyway I remain ever optimistic that there may be some cauliflower yet to arrive on a human plate.
Then are several rows of leeks. We love leeks. I’ve never managed to grow them beyond spring onion size despite having tried in my allotment in Sussex, on the croft on Rum and now here. The current crop is the most successful I have managed so far. They look more like onions than spring onions which is a step beyond what I’ve reached previously. I have hopes for my leeks.
I have a small row of carrots next. Carrots are barely ever worth growing I suspect. They need so much spacing, are so vulnerable to carrot fly and sadly are so cheap to buy in the supermarket. But they are never as sweet as home grown ones and the smell of freshly pulled carrots is so intoxicating it’s worth it. You can see why carrot flies love them…
I have several rows of lettuce and salad next. That is not strictly true actually. I have the sad stalks of several rows of lettuce and salad next along with a marker telling me in my own fair hand that there should be lettuce and salad leaves. The slugs can obviously read my writing though. And they got there first.
Finally at the end of that bed is the broccoli. A firm favourite of Ady and Scarlett. The broccoli in much the same style as the Chinese cabbage has been shooting up tall stalks and flowers every single bloody day. And we all know who sees those pretty flowers and texts all their mates to come along and join the broccoli leaf eating party don’t we?
This is the first year for the beds. They are filled with rotted horse manure from our neighbours. I have a plan to add some additional material once the crops are done. I have some home made compost maturing, access to plenty of seaweed and may well add some more manure to mature over the winter along with some leaf mulch in the autumn. I will un-net the beds and let the chickens in to help turn over the soil gently and add some of their own weeding and manuring skills too through the winter.
I have experimented with a few new crops I’d not tried before and have been slightly scuppered by the extreme heat wave in early spring and the late frosts of early summer but I’ve learned loads and will have a better idea to start a sowing and growing plan for next year now.
The real menace though has been the slugs. I have previously not battled with them to such a degree anywhere else but there is a HUGE resident slug population here. It’s wet with high rainfall and just outside the garden is croftland with huge amounts of bracken covered land providing perfect slug habitat. I have tried heading out as dusk falls collecting slugs and regularly gathered in excess of 100 a night.
I have had a go at a few slug repelling ideas including coffee, eggs shells, copper and sheep fleece around certain plants. The only one which I would consider even slightly successful was the sheep fleece, fortunately I have easy access to more of that so may try that again next year. I have also, after advice from lots of friends applied a treatment of nematodes. I’ll do another one in six weeks or so and then start again in the early spring next year.
I have also established a small wildlife pond. It is an old shower tray from a friend set into some long grass with lots of stones around it. Flyaway grass clippings from the lawn have created a nice layer of sediment and a couple of lillies swiped from a nearby freshwater lochan have taken. We had rescued some frogspawn from a drying out ditch earlier in the year and been watching them grow into tiny tadpoles and then froglets in a tank in our bathroom before releasing them into the pond. There are all sorts of tiny creatures already attracted to it and this weekend Scarlett returned from a walk to the beach carrying one of her shoes as she had rescued a toad struggling on the shore of the saltwater loch and bought it home. It hung out in the pond for a few hours and although I’ve not spotted it since I am hoping it will choose to hang around the garden – there is plenty of food and shelter for it here.
We have lots of nice little wild corners where we may even attract snakes or slow worms all of whom will help keep the slug population in check too. Finally I will also look at some more companion planting or sacrificial crops next year. A working with nature, multi pronged approach to managing a balance between not all of my efforts being slug food and not destroying nature with too much interference either.
My garden endeavours have been far from all doom and gloom though. The end of a sack of potatoes which had chitted before we got to eating them got chucked in some more rotted manure in sacks on the decking. I have pretty much neglected them ever since other than earthing them up every time they peeked through. The plants absolutely thrived with us questioning more than once whether they were even potatoes as they took on triffid like proportions, growing ever taller and stronger but not yet flowering.
Eventually curiosity got the better of us so last week we emptied out one of the sacks. We were delighted to harvest a whole bucket of potatoes and have left the other two sacks to carry on with their mutant growing. We had a lovely dinner last week of eggs from our chickens (some of us ate them in the form of quiches, other purists just had them scrambled) served with our own tatties and peas.
Mutant potatoes and pea forests aside though my biggest success this year has been my decking project. The decking runs around two sides of the house and is a lovely place to sit outside and enjoy the sunshine, watch stars, sit around the fire pit or have a cup of tea / cold beer. We use the space most days and while the view is stunning I felt the environment could be prettied up a bit. I am also ever conscious of helping bees and other pollinators. So I have been collecting pots, planters and containers, some of which are new, some are recycled and others have been collected from the beaches on our litter walks. I’ve decorated some of them with shells and stones (with various degrees of success and entertainment value) and created a whole ‘wall’ of different layers, shapes, colours and sizes of containers. I’ve then filled them with a whole load of flowers and herbs. Some have been grown from seed like cornflowers, sunflowers, gerbera, borage, petunia, nasturtium, dill, basil, chives, coriander, sage, thyme and fennel. Some have been bought, either as tiny plug plants on online sales or reduced in the supermarkets as ailing end of season bargains including oregano, fushia, rosemary, lavender, mint. I also bought some nigella, cosmos and nicotiana from my friend.
I’ve done a lot of rearranging and moving things about but am delighted with how it looks and smells as the flowers start to burst into bloom. Even on a miserable day there is always double figure numbers of pollinators buzzing about feeding from the flowers, we are able to nip out and gather herbs for cooking and Scarlett and I gathered a load of the early flowers to sugar coat and decorate a cake with. Some of the pots will obviously be annuals so next year will bring a whole new opportunity for different colours, themes and arrangements.
Our chickens continue to entertain us and provide us with a very steady supply of lovely free range eggs. I think all 8 of the hens have taken a turn at going broody this summer but we don’t want or need any more chicks so we have so far managed to find any hen sitting on a clutch of eggs and evict her. They may outsmart us yet though and I would not be entirely surprised to look out of the window at some point and spot a proud mumma hen leading a tribe of fluffy little chicks.
The garden has given me a lot of joy this spring and summer. There are constraints to being in a rented house (not in terms of what I am able to do, our landlords are lovely and happy for us to do anything in the garden, just in terms of what I want to invest time and money into when I know it is not our forever space) and the climate both in terms of the local area and the planet have not always been on my side, not to mention those slugs. But staying connected to nature, being outside in the elements, staying active, celebrating the victories and eating the results more than make up for any of the small down sides.
I have been prompted by email that I have not blogged in a month (thank you Lynda! xxx)
It is the strangest time I hope we ever live through, on the one hand not a lot has changed, on the other everything feels as though it has changed forever. We are still mostly doing what we always do but alongside our day to day lives, which have been altered due to lockdown and furlough it seems the whole world has been turned upside down.
This is not the right place for me to share my views on politics, racism, capitalism, the patriarchy, environmental issues, education, how to come out – or not – of lockdown, trans-rights…. but suffice to say there have been many conversations, learning opportunities and wider reading happening here.
Meanwhile time is rushing away. It feels as though every other day is Friday again already and another week has rushed past. I have not opened my google calendar now for weeks and weeks and weeks. not filled out a work timesheet or submitted an invoice but of course there have been ways of marking time.
Celebrations – Ady’s birthday. Celebrated in the sunshine with nice food, nice drink, shell art on the beach, fabulous cards from Davies and Scarlett and traditional birthday brownies.
June brings the anniversary of Ady and I being a couple – 27 years this year. Fathers Day – also celebrated with nice food, nice drink, fabulous cards and a cake yesterday.
Obviously celebrating with family and friends on various birthdays and other occasions has been done remotely. So hard not to be together for these special times but at least technology allows for virtual togetherness.
It has been the solstice weekend. Summer solstice is never quite as special as winter solstice, because that is marking the lengthening of the days and the return of the light. The weather this weekend has been very changeable and in fact sunset and sunrise were both not actually visible due to heavy cloud. I managed middle of the day swims and some shell art on two different beaches creating suns on the longest day of the year though.
I have been at the beach most days, swimming and making shell art, often with one or more of the others. I had a truly magical swim last weeken. There have been increasing numbers of moon jellyfish in the loch. Moon jellies are non stinging (well they do sting but too weak to be felt by humans) so perfectly safe to swim with assuming you can get passed the mental block of doing so. A friend and I had embarked on swimming across the loch and back at one of the narrower points – a swim of about a kilometre, which is a fairly usual distance for us but feels a bigger deal when you are committing to a there and back adventure. Mid way across we realised that below us were hundreds, maybe thousands of jellyfish.
My cheapie camera does not accurately reflect the scale, colour or beauty of them but gives an idea. They were mostly below us as we swam but when we stopped to take photos and our legs dangled deeper into the water we could feel them brush past us. I was on a complete high for the rest of the day from the combination of achieving a daunting swim and an amazing wildlife encounter – definitely up there with my top best memories.
The swim sketch book exchange I mentioned before continues, I think we are on our fourth rotation now and that has been lovely. I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with more art and seeing the work of others too.
I have been doing a bit of writing for the paper alongside phone line volunteering too. I’ve also been joining in with the Great British Home Chorus choir, attending virtual choir practise online and recording and uploading my contributions. There is an EP coming out soon of the songs that many thousands of us have participated in learning and singing ‘together’.
Ady continues to enjoy his job. He is learning so much, finding it challenging and rewarding. It will be a great day when he no longer has to wear so much PPE as while it is of course essential for keeping him and his clients safe it also makes the job physically difficult and hampers communication, particularly with clients who rely on lip reading and facial expressions.
Davies and Scarlett are maintaining their social lives online and are both out and about for walks at least once most days, often twice. Nature continues to provide entertainment, education and wonder from the changing of the weather and the seasons, the wildlife encounters and altering landscapes. Living amid ancient oak woodland on the shores of a saltwater loch provides endless opportunities. Scarlett has discovered newts, rescued tadpoles from a rapidly drying ditch, happened upon and spent time watching an otter.
The garden or micro-croft has begun to yield early harvests along with joy as crops establish, fruit and flower. We have been eating home grown salad leaves for weeks, along with strawberries and herbs such as rosemary, mint, thyme, oregano, coriander, basil. Peas are now cropping and my pot filled decking is promising a riot of colour sometime very soon as buds begin to form on nasturtium, lavender, borage, sunflowers, cornflowers, gerbera, sweet peas and comfrey.
I am engaged in an ongoing battle with the slugs though, who are decimating my lovingly grown cabbages and broccoli.
Scarlett and I are hatching a plan for a wildlife pond and we have tadpoles growing legs ready for release once we have it ready with hopes of keeping future slug generations a bit more in check.
I think that’s us caught up a bit. I anticipate the coming weeks starting to bring some answers to what the rest of the year might start to look like – whether we will be able to welcome friends and family to visit, have more get togethers with local friends, plan trips away from home again and start to pick up our various jobs again.
I talked a bit in the previous post about the things we’ve been keeping busy with while in lockdown. One area of my life I have been missing so much was my daily swims.
From last autumn I had been in loch Sunart more or less daily for a swim. I’ve blogged about my wild swimming before and how much it means to me. I think I have also talked about moving from fully neoprene clad wetsuit swims to just wearing a swimsuit in early January. I continued to swim throughout January, February and into March while there was snow on the ground, frost on the seaweed and stones on the shore and plummeting temperatures in the loch, dipping to around zero on several occasions but certainly hovering around the 3 degrees mark for weeks and weeks.
Mostly I swam alone, sometimes Scarlett joined me, once Ady did. I regularly swam on Sundays with a group of local friends and had done a few big organised group swims. I was booked on to join lots of those this coming year, the first few dates have already passed and I think all of this years swims are likely to be cancelled as they require such high levels of planning for both the location, time and date of the swim but also the logistics of planning safety support, registration and the event itself.
I stopped swimming when the UK went into lockdown. It felt like an unnecessary risk to be taking, my usual swim location was a drive away (only about 2 miles but far enough not to want to walk to and from home in the cold, particularly the post-swim walk home when wet too.) and the car park is closed.
But I missed it, oh how I missed it. I walked most days down to the beach at the end of our track, a little bay of the loch that I had previously not really explored. I got to know it really well and started to understand how the tides there worked, what the beach looked like at very high and very low tide and everything inbetween. I learned the topography of the shoreline, where the bed drops away to become suddenly deep, where rocky reefs and tiny islands may lie exposed at certain times and submerged at others.
It was not long before I was seeking something extra to do on those walks, some way to mark the days and one day I took a photo of a tiny patch of the beach on which the tide had washed up a beautiful selection of shells and pebbles.
And that was that, from then I was looking down.
On my next visit to the beach I gathered some shells and ‘wrote’ the phrase LOCKDOWN LIFE by arranging them on the sand.
We were enjoying a heatwave here so the following day I made a sunshine out of shells.
The heatwave continued and I started to kick my shoes off, roll my jeans up and paddle in the loch while making my shell art as the water and sunshine on the shells created beautiful iridescent rainbows if I made them just under the water.
Inevitably having felt the water on my toes my jeans got rolled up progressively higher every day as I waded out just a tiny bit further into the loch…
My shell art has became a part of my walk every day. Sometimes I go to the beach already with a plan, sometimes I just decide when I get there and take my inspiration from whatever is on my mind as I walk across the beach looking at the shells. I tend to write some ponderings about whatever the shell art is along with the pictures when I post them on social media (I’m nic.goddard on instagram if anyone is interested in following me and seeing a bit more of them.) The act of collecting, arranging and thinking of a story to go with each picture is calming, meditative and really appeals to my creative needs.
I am loving the idea of land art, ephemeral art, transient art. It is beautiful to watch the day to day, week to week progress of the shells I have gathered and arranged being slowly altered and moved back by the incoming and outgoing tides and returning to random scattered shells and stones once more. They have been homes for tiny creatures, play host or shelter to yet more tiny creatures and form the ever changing ever shifting shore and bed of the loch tossed about by nature, by chance and for a tiny brief part of their story by me.
I have taken great comfort from the online wild swimming community during lockdown. Lots of people are still finding ways to swim, others are sharing archive pictures of swims of the past. A lovely idea was dreamed up by a fellow wild swimmer to create a project called the Swim Sketchbook Exchange which instantly had loads of us scattered across the UK signing up to take part. The idea is that we all do 4 pieces of art or any sort in a sketchbook and then pass it on to the next person, who also does 4 pieces of art and then passes it on and so on. After 10 exchanges everyone will end up with a book filled with 40 pieces of art by 10 different people – something to cherish. There are very few rules other than the art must be wild swimming inspired.
So far I have seen some amazing, beautiful pieces of art being shared online and can’t wait until the exchanges start. I’ve already done my four in my book and decorated the front cover ready for the first swap next week.
There is a postscript to this story of swim-spiration and loch inspired creativity. Which is that while these pursuits have been and continue to be really important in getting me through these weird times and have been excellent in connecting me with more new friends and fellow wild swimmers the loch just kept calling. And calling. AND CALLING.
And so, while it was still April, a month which I feared I may not swim in at all, during the continued heatwave, on a flat calm day in waist high water I got back in the loch for a swim. I had assessed all of the risks to myself and to others, was on my ‘allowed’ walk from home and as a very experienced cold water swimmer with an able swimmer watching me from the shore (Ady!) able to wade out should he need to I swam again.
I’ve not been every day since but I have been in at various tides and times. Always in very shallow water, close to the shore with one of the others watching me. Other local friends have also been swimming applying similar common sense and one even checked in with the official guidelines to ensure it was within accepted things to be doing.
The first time I paddled I could actually feel the lockdown related tension, anxiety and stress leave my body. It felt so real it should have been visible on camera as a big rush of grey rising out from the top of my head. It was amazing. The first swim when I actually felt my whole body submerged and cradled by the saltwater was just perfect. I have now had high tide, low tide, calm water, choppy water, colder water and warmer water swims.
During lockdown getting down to the loch has been even more important to me than ever.
We are all still well. In many ways for us life is not massively different, in many others it is unrecognisable and will never return to how it used to be.
It’s relatively easy to list all the things that we have not been able to do as a result of the pandemic. We should have been at a live podcast show this week down in Glasgow. We should have been at a cinema event screening a David Attenborough film with a live theatre link up to the man himself last month.
We were expecting a visit from Davies’ friend for a few nights followed by the rest of his family collecting him and staying overnight too.
We should have been with friends in Northern Ireland for Easter.
We should have had visits from our friend Mairi, our friends David and Debbie. My parents should have been here for a ten day stay in April.
I should have done at least three big group swims.
All of these are things which have been cancelled, postponed, refunded, crossed off the calendar.
Then there are the things which have not happened yet but we know won’t be happening either. Davies should be counting down the days to his first big solo trip, flying to meet Megan’s family and friends, to see where she lives and works and studies. Then he and Megan should be returning here for months and months of time together stretching ahead of them.
Scarlett’s volunteering with the local Cats Protection League training was scheduled for the spring with the intention of her actually getting stuck into some practical volunteering over the summer. She had plans to enter her baking into as many competitions at craft and produce fayres as she could. All of them are already cancelled.
Davies’ final end of module assessment for this years OU study has been cancelled. His fledgling art business which was heavily reliant on selling at those same fayres is stalled with him reporting no sales each month just as he should be getting up and running.
Ady’s job with the NHS as a care at home worker has been the biggest baptism of fire imaginable. He conducts his rounds in full PPE with new directives almost daily on keeping himself and his clients safe from the virus. Training courses have been cancelled, he has only met new colleagues at a distance as they hand over stocks of PPE or exchange email and text messages.
My various jobs have all headed off in different directions. I am furloughed from my work at the centre, have no work at all from the various holiday cottage cleaning (obviously!) and due to advertising sales dropping to nothing the writing work for the paper is curtailed to an absolute minimum of just a couple of columns a month.
Financially we are doing OK thanks to one of us working, one of us furloughed and only needing to spend money on absolute essentials such as household bills and food.
In terms of staying busy we are doing just fine. We have always spent the majority of our time together, mostly at home and are used to enjoying the space we inhabit and finding largely home-based activities. Learning from home, socialising online, baking and crafting, at this time of year sowing and growing, having creative activities on the go are all how we have lived for the last decade or more.
We have deliberately chosen to live our lives somewhere that we love being with easy access to the things we love. We have space, views, are close to nature, near to water and woodland. That has the trade off of being far away from family and friends, remote from shops, cinema, leisure activities… at the moment of course we would be able to do none of those things anyway.
But it has also been incredibly hard. Davies, Scarlett and I have not left the house other than for daily walks since lockdown began. I am missing my various work colleagues, my Sunday swimming friends, the local friends I would bump into in the course of a week. I am desperately missing my more distant family and friends who I should have spent at least some time in the company of over the lockdown period. I am mourning being able to make plans, organise things and fill up the weeks and months ahead with exciting and interesting things to look forward to.
I have been in daily contact with a close family member who despite not having been tested has clearly had COVID 19 and that has been terrifying to deal with – for them obviously but also for me from a distance. Unable to do anything even remotely practical or helpful or emotionally physically supportive, just waiting on daily updates and holding my breath hoping for the best and trying not to think about the worst.
I’ve been tending my seedlings, transplanting my little plants, watering and protecting, thinning and watching. I had sufficient germination rates to give seedlings to my neighbour – the one who’s horse supplied our compost! Our raised beds are now filled with compost, had been turned over and picked through by the chickens and then netted and the first little plants moved in. We’ve had to cover the beds with sheets and fleeces against late frosts and have lost the first batch of sweetcorn but have more germinated and growing well indoors ready to plant out in another couple of weeks.
We’ve even had our first couple of tiny harvests of salad leaves.
Our hosepipe was not long enough to reach the beds and we were pondering an online purchase of hose but then chanced upon some washed up black pipe on a beach walk, likely from the fish farm across the loch. We gathered it up and Ady performed gaffer tape technology to create a hose extension which has worked perfectly. Beach clean, repurposed litter, free irrigation – a win all round!
The grass which we removed from our raised bed sites has been relocated to a previously bare patch of sparse gravel below our decking. We can now add ‘lawn removals’ to our list of skills!
Our chickens have continued to provide us with a huge supply of eggs so there has been lots of baking going on (we already had bulk supplies of flour, sugar and yeast, Rum life prepared us well for keeping a good supply of tinned, dry and frozen food, a habit we have not lost). We even had an egg glut allowing us to share the spares with our neighbours. We now have four of our eight hens broody so our egg supply has dropped and Ady and I are removing the very cross hens from the chicken house every day to help them break their broodiness and ensure they eat and drink. We don’t want any more chicks just now, despite the cuteness. I’ve been recalling the year on Rum when we were super efficient with chicks and ducklings and had numerous nursery pens filled with babies across the croft and perfected the snatch and grab technique of lifting a hen and her newly hatched brood to move them into a safe-from-the-crows pen.
We had a very low key Easter compared to the one we had planned. Having been assured by both Davies (19) and Scarlett (17) when I said goodnight to them on Easter Saturday that yes, actually they would still like an egg hunt the following morning when I surmised that they would not, I spent some time before they got up creating a hunt around the house and garden with clues for them to follow.
I have a yen to fill our decking with pots and containers of herbs and flowers. My vision is a beautiful oasis of pretty blooms, scented ingredients and a haven for bees. I’ve sown plenty of herb and flower seeds in preparation and have some more lavender plants on order that Ady found a special promotional offer online for, but I am slightly lacking the pots and containers. There are some beautiful stone and terracotta pots in garden centres but they are closed, far away and expensive. So I have been trying to ‘pimp cheap pots’. Last year Scarlett, my Mum and I coloured some cheap plastic white pots but they faded in the sunshine so I thought I could fix beach found treasures to them like pebbles, shells and sea glass. A first attempt at this with the hot glue gun failed miserably and with hilarious results!
I now have a large bag of waterproof interior and exterior tile grout and adhesive which arrived yesterday having experimented with a small pot of ready made grout from the local shop. It worked well and I learned that certain stones are better (at least one flattish surface to gain maximum adherence, not too heavy, washed and dried really well to loosen any sandy bits). So I will do some more stone gathering and have another go at that on the next nice day to be outdoors.
I also had a go at creating a basket-style pot with some gathered bits from the woodland. It is the wrong time of year really to cut materials as the sap has already risen. You should also allow it to mellow and then soak it to make it pliable again rather than using it ‘green’ but I am impatient and yet another winter has passed by when I have not managed to gather stuff at the correct time so I thought I’d have an experimental go at making something. It turned out OK and I will line it with a compost bag (when the bag I am almost finished is all used up) and plant it up too.
I’ll share more pictures of the decking as my planned vision hopefully comes to life.
We’ve been enjoying the garden so much during the beautiful sunny spring we have had. Spending lots of time out there planting, watering, messing about with compost and pots but also sitting chatting and enjoying the stunning view. One sunny morning Ady and I sat under our parasol reminiscing on how we used to go to the pub across the road from us on an early Friday evening each week after work for a drink in our pre-parent days and talking of pub lunches in beer gardens in our very early days together. Ady went in to make lunch and came back out with groaning plates of food and a pint of cider each. Pretending our garden is in a pub and having a lovely lunch is now our sunny day treat once a week or so.
Scarlett and I have been night sky gazing a fair bit. We watched the two recent supermoons, did some satellite spotting and have been gazing at Venus which is super bright in the night sky just now. We have also been enjoying the night time wildlife of the bats swooping around and the owls calling. On a good night I can do a passable owl call and often get a hoot or two back in reply which always delights us. This week we took flasks of hot chocolate with us and watched sunset and moonrise at the beach over the loch which was just magical.
Like so many others we have managed to stay in touch with friends online. Davies and Scarlett have long conducted most of their social life via video calls and online chats and actually I too have made and maintained many friendships online but have been enjoying weekly group video calls with one set of friends, we spent a virtual evening with friends in America recently and the friend who was supposed to be here collecting her son and I still shared a few drinks and a catch up chat thanks to the internet.
A bit of a catch up on what we have been doing and what we should have been doing.
We hope this post finds all our readers doing OK in these strange, strange times.
My food growing adventures started back in 2008 when we got to the top of the very long waiting list for an allotment from our local council.
Davies, Scarlett and I went to the office, signed the paperwork, paid our first years rent (About £50 if I recall correctly) and collected the key to the main gate.
We drove straight to the plots, about two miles from our house and roamed through the mostly beautifully tended and productive plots to find ours which was furthest away from the gate and quite overgrown. Subsequent chatting with neighbouring plot holders meant we learned that we had taken over the previously very loved plot of an elderly gentleman who had fallen into ill health for a while before dying so his plot had been left for a whole season or more without being tended.
I learned so much from that plot and it was absolutely a big inspiration for our year of WWOOFing and subsequent crofting adventures on Rum.
During our WWOOFing travels we stayed with people who were amazing produce growers. Some on massive scales growing to supply others with veg boxes, some fully self sufficient for their communities and families, some still in the early stages of setting up abundant gardens and a whole mix of different challenges in terms of soil quality, accessibility, water, climate and weather conditions, sloping or flat land and orientation of plot creating shade, sun and shelter. I think I learned at least one thing that has stayed with me from every single hosts whether it was tips on sowing distance from Lisa in Wales who used her own hands and feet to measure rather than a tape measure because ‘I’ve always got my hands and feet with me!’, pest prevention from Pete in Somerset who encouraged weeing around his perimeter fence to deter deer, amazing planning and crop rotation from Wilf and Matt in Durham or permaculture plot design and forest gardening from Chris in Devon.
Despite best efforts (and bloody hell there was a whole lot of effort!) although we created a lot of infrastructure for growing on the croft with 20 raised beds in a ‘walled garden’, a massive soft fruit cage, a huge strawberry garden, a herb spiral and a polytunnel my growing on Rum was never a huge success. The start of the season was so late, often with frosts into May, followed swiftly by midges during the time you most needed to be outside tending crops. The soil quality was poor despite best efforts at improvement with livestock aerating and treading in manure, seaweed mulch, comfrey feed, chicken and duck pest control….Really the only crops that I triumphed with were soft fruits like currants, strawberries and raspberries, salad leaves grown in containers and peas. I seem to be good at growing strawberries and peas regardless of where I am. I guess we all have that one crop we fluke. I’ve yet to grow a leek beyond spring onion size though.
Anyway, back to the present day. Where I hope the cumulative knowledge and all those who have taught me, my own experience in the very easy growing and the very challenging growing conditions and proximity to more resources yet a more pressing need to ensure we have at least some fresh produce in the impending food crisis during / post corona virus may aid my green fingers a little.
I picked up a mini greenhouse in the end of season sales last year and stashed it ready for this spring. I had some seeds already and had placed an online order for more just before the lockdown hit so received those in the post pretty much on time for the start of the growing season. I had some compost bought from our chicken feed supplier already and a few seed trays purchased in another end of season sale last year. Instead of stockpiling loo rolls I’ve been saving the empty cardboard tubes for weeks ready to make little seed pots with (the others are very helpful indeed at leaving them in the bathrooms for me…..).
I didn’t have a watering can but I did have a small pin to pierce holes in the lids of various milk cartons means I was able to make a selection of small and large watering cans.
Once we realised our spare bedroom would not in fact be hosting our planned influx of house guests (sob) this spring I set up a whole load more sown seeds all along the large south facing window in an array of makeshift seed trays including plastic tubs and trays, cardboard containers.
And just like despite the drama / crisis / horror story unravelling and evolving before our eyes on the TV, in the papers and on our phone news feeds the sun rises and sets, the moon continues through her phases, the tides roll in and out and the birds have begun to sing, pair up and gather nesting materials so the seedlings have begun to burst through the surface of the soil.
Which of course means that just like any proud witness to new life we have been casting around in the realisation that they will carry on growing and need a bigger home than their tiny loo roll tubes.
We had already agreed with our landlord last year that we could create some vegetable beds so we have built a couple of beds with some scrap wood, swapped some eggs for rotted horse poo with a neighbour, borrowed a spade (because all of our tools are on Rum, where we can’t get them having now missed two planned visits due to lock down) and are going to lift the lawn up. Ideally we would have filled the raised beds with compost – that is not feasible to get hold of in these weird times so we figure growing direct into the ground (we’ll be slicing and rolling the grass to lift it rather than digging) and then filling the beds at some future point is the way to go.
We still have another couple of weeks to be certain of being frost free so in the interim we are encouraging the chickens to feed and scratch around on the beds. We have some netting on order to prevent them doing that once we are ready to plant out.
The strawberries that we bought over from Rum last year have taken well and spread out lots in the first bed we constructed here last summer. I have had them covered with plastic over winter and although there are no flowers yet there are some very healthy looking leafy plants.
It will be really interesting to see how we do in this, our third growing space.
I’m reading a book at the moment. It’s lovely, beautifully written and filled with joys and sorrows. It’s a story of ordinary people and their ordinary lives, and deaths – both similar to and utterly different to every single story every one of us has to tell / is living through.
Lots of us are finding meaning in things we would not usually discover at the moment, maybe we are seeking something we don’t usually look for? Maybe there is a new quiet, a special hush which means we can see more, hear more, feel more with so many fewer distractions. I’ve read stories (some later proven not true) of wildlife returning to places previously too busy with humans. I’ve seen photos of goats in playgrounds, dolphins in canals, ducks in water fountains, wild boar playing with their young in the middle of a deserted high street.
I’ve found articles online talking about earth quakes felt many miles away from where they normally would be because our walls are not shuddering with constant lorry traffic passing by. I have Seen maps of reduced pollution over cities, looked up and seen skies free from jet contrails.
There is suddenly greater poetry in song lyrics, in dystopian novels, in prophesies of doom. Those of us already blessed / cursed with seeing meaning in everything are seeing it even clearer, hearing it even louder. Looking for silver linings, wishing on rainbows.
I said to a friend recently that Coronavirus is a bit like Christmas. It’s bringing out the best and the worst in people. For every heart warming hand crayoned wonky rainbow picture a child is sellotaping to their window, for every pair of hands clapping for the NHS at 8pm on a Thursday, for every single one of the tens of thousands of people printing off the words to ‘You are my Sunshine’ and joining in with a remotely scattered choir conducted by Gareth Malone via youtube there is a child who’s only respite from a cold house, an empty belly, a loveless existence was their day at school. Or a scared woman suffering at the hands of a violent partner, even more angry now at the lack of open pubs and Saturday football. Some of us have lost our only glimmers of sunshine and hope.
People are still sick, dying, needing medical care for all the reasons other than COVID 19. People are still unemployed, poor, hungry, homeless even without lockdown related restrictions. People are still despairing, anxious, depressed, suicidal just as they were before this global pandemic gave everybody something to lay awake fretting about at 4am. There is no comfort or ease of those suffering from now being in the company of the whole of society with their collective suffering too.
Back to that book I mentioned. A sentence from it this morning made stop. re-read it several times. Take a photo of it.
Everything is so overwhelming just now. It’s all Big Things. Big scary things, with names we don’t fully understand and outcomes even our most optimistic hopes for are still unspeakable in their horror. And there is so, so little we can do about it.
We all know that the only thing certain in life is death. We all know that despite our best laid plans, intentions, meticulously detailed calendars and organised lists none of us really know what the future ever holds. I can have an idea of what next Tuesday afternoon might hold for me – I can plan a menu, schedule a reminder for a TV show, organise a phone chat or a video call with a friend. I can look at the weather forecast and even look out an outfit to imagine myself in. But the reality is that even the fleeting thought going through my mind just now of putting the kettle on for another cup of tea and re-reading this post before I press send may not actually come to fruition.
But we like to think we have a grip on things. I have lived a life filled with unconventional choices and twisty-turny saying yes to opportunities, finding myself somewhere completely different to where I thought I was setting out to and have loved it. The unexpected, the spontaneous, the tossing a coin to decide whether to turn left or right next. But it was always me tossing that coin and although if I think about it too hard for too long I know I don’t really hold any real control over my destiny, it is in making lots of small decisions and doing lots of small things that we are able to cope with the big things.
The same is true in these dark times I think. I have walked through the light living a charmed life. I am ever optimistic and filled with sunshine but even I am struggling with this one. I think I’m getting a real taste of what it must be like not to be me. Not to be able to shrug off the sadness and the worry. To find small joy in a seedling poking it’s head through the soil but not have the feeling of dread pushed away by it.
My way of coping has been to try and face it all as head on as I can. I’ve actually compiled mental lists of the very worst that could happen. They are dreadful lists and I wouldn’t write them down or speak them aloud. But they have allowed me to ensure I am as prepared as I can be for them.
Living far from loved family and friends for nearly a decade has meant that I always say goodbye knowing it may actually be goodbye. That I try not to leave things left unsaid just in case there is not a later. That if I have any questions or doubts I attempt to ask them and appease them. Those who I am not able to spend real life time with know how much I love them, how important they are to me and how much I value them in my life because I’ve told them, very clearly.
Those who I see often but am apart from now, or should have been spending time with I’m aiming for virtual company with. Zoom chats, video calls, regular messages and check-ins.
Our home life has not changed massively. Education for us has always happened from home. Davies and Scarlett have conducted the majority of their social lives online anyway. For nearly a decade we have lived remotely and at the mercy of poor weather meaning we need to have a good store cupboard of food and don’t always have fresh fruit and vegetables unless we grow it ourselves. I already had this years seedlings sown and our chickens were already providing our eggs. Our ‘daily exercise’ was always walks or swims. We never watched Eastenders anyway!
We have always had an ongoing emergency type plan of who Davies and Scarlett could call on if something happened to us. I updated it recently having realised that they are no longer dependant children and in light of my ‘name your worst fear’ list I have sorted out our paperwork files, shared all the information about the admin side of of lives and created documents to guide any of the other three through the things that previously I used to do and ensured that no single one of us is in fact indispensable on a practical or administrative level at least.
Then I have turned to the small things; giving some of the egg surplus to the neighbours, signing up for the local community phone line to take calls from those needing food supplies, medication and firewood, or just a friendly chat, I’m still doing at least one shift a week for the mental health helpline too and I am about to start doing a weekly video chat hosting for people about Home Education locally as well. These are the small things for others but also for me. To give me a sense of purpose, of having done something, *anything* each day.
I’ve stopped swimming for now. During the colder months we would drive to the loch for my swims so I could get home and in the shower /warm quicker. It is non-essential travel for sure. Although I am very safety conscious it felt just a risky enough activity to not be a sensible thing to be doing. I miss it massively. I am walking down to the loch every day and have been paddling instead, even submersion to knee deep is a highlight of my day.
Ady is our key worker. He is now donning protective masks, gloves and aprons for every client he visits. It is a very strange time to have joined the NHS and been thrown into the middle of the biggest challenge it has likely ever faced. He is in a peripheral role to the big fight against Coronavirus but certainly noting the effects on his clients and the world around them.
This feels a strange post for this blog really. But these are strange times and I want to record them. I want to be honest, candid and myself (even if there are bits of myself I am not entirely recognising just now). It would be stranger still not to talk about it I think.
I will post soon about more small things – I have tales of the seedlings to share, plans for raised beds, a yen for a cob pizza oven in the garden. Rum is calling with belongings I am suddenly finding a need for stuck there and friends I want to catch up with.
It feels odd to be wondering so much more than we are wandering just now.
And finally, that cup of tea I could not be entirely sure of? It’s here now beside me on the table. I’m about to press send….
Prior to this past week I am not sure I have actually gasped at anything other than TV drama and action movies. Now I am gasping daily while watching the news, logging on to social media or reading things online. Gasping with horror, with shock, with dismay.
I’m also finding myself with my hand on my heart, feeling the most bittersweet emotions of seeing the very best of humanity too.
For every vitriol filled rant on social media there are several stories of people helping their fellow neighbours. For every selfish act witnessed there is a leaflet through the door advertising helplines to ring to ask for help collecting shopping, medical supplies or firewood.
People are scared, which almost always brings out the worst in us and there is not necessarily fast enough responses and answers from our usual trusted information sources and government, largely because the answers may not yet be know, so people are turning to less trustworthy sources, making up their own answers or grabbing what they can to feel safe and prepared against the worst.
Davies, Scarlett and I took to self-isolation as of last Tuesday when I was sent home from work as youth club and all the various sporting activities at the community centre where I work shut down. Ady and I cleaned a cottage on Wednesday but saw no one and the cottage had already been empty for over 48 hours. I have ceased my group swims and have been swimming alone, although I sometimes see someone (and indeed have passed folk) we have been tens of metres away from each other and outside so able to call a friendly but physically very distant greeting to each other. Davies and Scarlett are out every day for a walk but see nobody at all and touch nothing which another person will have touched.
Ady is obviously not able to do the same as his care at home work requires him to be at very close quarters with his clients. Updated guidance and information is coming through from the NHS all the time for him and he started four days off (he works a 4 on, 4 off shift pattern) today. I suspect by the time he returns to work again on Friday things may have moved on yet further. With him out and about anyway he is doing our essential shopping for food and fuel. After nearly a decade of island living and rural living we have become accustomed to buying in bulk and having a decent store of essentials anyway, with a decent stock of food in the freezer and healthy amounts of dried and tinned goods. Living 40 miles from the nearest supermarket and at the mercy of often extreme weather closing roads and stopping the ferry running means you have a certain amount of SHTF-preparedness as a matter of course.
Being at home for me has meant I am able to sign up for extra shifts on the mental health helpline as I am usually working 3 evenings a week. It’s also meant I have been able to volunteer for the local community council initiative of a phoneline for residents too and today I completed a skills audit of various other home-based things I can do with the local council, who my youth work / community centre employers have redeployed staff to aid with.
I already had my mini green house filled with seeds but have ordered a few additional packs of seeds and will turn over the sunny window sill of our spare room to ‘greenhouse’ space too. Sadly the friend expected later this week, our house sitters for our planned Ireland trip and my parents, visiting for 10 days will not be needing that spare bedroom, which had been looking like it would be very busy over the next 6 weeks. All of those plans have been cancelled.
A fingerpicking workshop of daily practise I had signed up for before this all kicked off has been an excellent daily motivator to pick up my ukuleles every day. And once in my hands after I’ve done the 15 minutes of finger picking I have been playing on for another 15 minutes or so. Today we joined in with around 15000 other people for the first of Gareth Malone’s choir practises.
Mothers Day yesterday was the embodiment of all that is good, bad, happy and sad about these strangest of times. A video call to my Mum, an email and text message exchange with my extra Mum Lynda, a facebook messenger chat with my extra daughter Megan all scatted across the UK and across the world. A day of being so very grateful to have Davies and Scarlett right here with me. As always I was completely blown away with their skills and creativity from their hand made cards and reduced to (happy) tears with the lovely things they said to me. And Megan managed to also make me cry with her message too.
We never really know what the future holds, but the world has been totally turned upside down for every single one of us.
I hope all of our readers stay safe, look after themselves first and as many others as they are able to help look after too. Be kind – as always it’s the single most important thing we can possibly aspire to.
Last week it was the one year anniversary of our move back to the mainland. As it’s not that long since our bad, good, learned round up of 2019 I have not made the others sit down and do the exercise again about our first year away from our Rum life.
We have all been reflecting on it though and I spent a few hours with a friend who we met on Rum but actually lives near us here having lived on Rum for a few years himself last week, so Life After Rum was part of our many conversational meanderings.
Life has moved on hugely for our family a year on. It’s been a really busy year with all of us making the most of the opportunities being based on the mainland has offered.
We have all taken on new volunteering responsibilities – Ady has been involved in a hospital transport driving project, Scarlett and I are both in the throes of becoming involved in the local Cats Protection League, Davies and I volunteer weekly for a local mental health helpline and are ambassadors for a Women’s Aid initiative as local ambassadors, we’ve all been involved in a citizen science project and between us spend several hours a week collecting litter off the shore of the local loch.
We have all found new and very diverse employment ranging from holiday cottage cleaning, writing for the local paper, working in the local tea room, at the local community centre, as a youth worker, selling our art, crafts, baking.
We have made new friends and become part of new social circles.
We have taken up new hobbies and interests, learned new skills and had new experiences.
Our lovely house has meant we have been able to have many people to visit for shorter and longer stays, both to visit us and to house sit for us when we’re away.
We have managed to bring chickens with us over from Rum and they have settled in well and bred the first new generation of mainland chickens for us. We also bought over some strawberries from Rum and had a tiny little crop of fruit, hopefully a bigger crop will follow this coming summer. We have sown seeds here and have plans to turn over part of the garden to growing veg, we have a compost bin and have been experimenting with dyeing wool using the lichen from the woodlands around the house.
My friend asked me last week if I missed Rum. I replied yes, I did and then we talked a bit more about what it was I actually missed.
Eventually I concluded that what I most missed about Rum was who I was there. I missed the freedom to decide each day what I wanted to do and how much meaning every single thing had. There were no pointless tasks in that lifestyle. Everything was either about survival or future proofing. Life was very much in the here and now and there was something hugely satisfying about that. In this past year there have been days when I’ve felt frustrated or as though my time has been wasted doing things I would struggle to justify the point of (mostly done while earning money it has to be said and there is a circular argument forever about that, which I have had internally with myself and with others over the years. There is no definitive answer…). On Rum I almost never had that feeling.
This was definitely the right move for us, the right choice at the right time. I feel proud of the new life we have built in the last 12 months and all we have achieved. It has a transient, temporary feel to it which at times I find unsettling and I am not entirely convinced we have the balance of all the various components completely right but we’re edging closer to it and there is no doubt that when everything is weighed up we are definitely in the right place. For now.
‘But you haven’t done a winter’ is a phrase which has rather followed us around in our life choices since we started this blog.
The notion of managing a winter in our campervan volunteering was the first one. Actually, we didn’t manage that. We’d always planned to be back in Sussex again for Christmas with family and not even attempted to set up WWOOF hosts through the winter before we set off as that would have proved all but impossible a year in advance. We assumed we would either continue setting up hosts a few weeks in advance as we travelled, that we’d have had enough of the adventure and returned home, decided to move our travels to somewhere warmer and venture into mainland Europe next or have worked out what our next step was and be wanting to start on that.
In fact we had indeed decided to move to Scotland, visited Rum for the first time and submitted our application for the croft so were waiting on hearing about that.
Our next ‘you haven’t done a winter yet’ was living on Rum itself. That was footnoted by ‘and definitely not in a caravan’.
That was quite some winter. We certainly came out of the other side of it feeling as though we had achieved something. We’d survived the winter winds, the days and days of endless rain and the croft turning to mud before our very eyes. The hours and hours of daylight – sometimes 20 a day shrank to barely 5 or 6. We’d been out collecting firewood, out picking winkles. It was a challenging and eye opening season with countless lessons learned and battles fought, lost and won.
‘Doing a winter’ certainly seems to be something of a badge of honour.
My adventures in wild swimming, started back in the summer last year had a similar hesitancy to the approach of the winter. I began to don a second pair of neoprene socks, looked at thicker gloves, bought a balaclava style hood and began exposing less and less of myself to the water as the temperature dropped.
At the end of November though, just as winter was tapping on our shoulders a couple of friends and I stripped off our wetsuits at the end of a regular swim and got back in to the water in our swimsuits. It was the most amazing feeling – like thousands of tiny pins and needles all over our bodies as the nerve endings jangled. It was one of the most freeing, joy filled experiences I’ve ever had. Every bit of my body seemed to be flooded with the most amazing sense of being alive. It was like letting your hair down when it’s been tied up all day, taking off a pair of uncomfortable high heels, removing your bra, finally having that wee you’ve been busting for for the last half an hour.
It was like putting on a pair of glasses when you’ve gradually been losing your vision and suddenly seeing every leaf on the trees again, your ears popping after being blocked and realising how muffled everything was. It was that feeling on the last day of school before the summer holidays, the relief of an all clear result, the exhilaration of a roller coaster.
I’ve not put the balaclava hood on since. Well actually I have, one day I had a very cold head and said to Ady ‘remind me tomorrow that my hat is my friend’ so the next day I went in the water wearing it, but a halfway into my swim I pulled it off and stuffed it down the front of my wetsuit. It was muffling the sounds, lessening my feelings and a million times more annoying than having a cold head.
Swimming without a wetsuit is known as ‘swimming in skins’ even though you are not just in your skin, you do have a swimsuit on too (although I do hear of many folk who literally just swim in their skin even my remote corner of the world still has me encountering other folk once a week or so and I can be seen from the roadside by any cars driving by, so I’ll be sticking with the swimsuit for now!). We carried on these skins dips at the end of our regular Sunday swims through December and for our New Years Day ‘Loony Dook’. The water was getting colder but with the decreasing temperature came increasing pleasure from the experience.
I began to consider just swimming in skins all the time rather than stripping off at the end of a swim. In the same way as the hat felt constricting the wetsuit was starting to feel the same. It was a faff to wriggle in and out of every time and I often felt I spent more time getting in to, out of or rinsing my wetsuit than I did actually being in it in the water. Over Christmas and new year I heard myself telling at least three people about how I was ‘considering losing the wetsuit and starting to swim in skins all the time’. I had half a plan to maybe shed it in the summer and then try not to go back to it through next winter thinking I would acclimatise that way, but those weekly skins dips were working their magic.
Then one day in early January I had my wetsuit with me to change in to on the shore as I was planning my swim on the way home from being out. I already had my swimsuit on under my clothes. It was windy and raining and Ady said to me ‘you’re going to get just as cold and wet putting that wetsuit on as you would just getting into the loch without it.’ He voiced in a joke what I had been thinking in all seriousness. My own voice was echoing in my ears that the only way to go from ‘thinking about doing’ something to doing something was to do it.
So I did.
And since then I’ve been in the loch most days in just a swimsuit and gloves. I have a fairly unreliable thermometer – some open water swimmers are a bit sniffy about having a thermometer at all but I like to know the water temperature. I am curious, purely in an interested in what’s going on sort of way. It is useful, in getting to know my own body and my capabilities to understand what impact a degree either way has on me. Finally I quite like knowing so I can brag about how tough I am! Conservative estimates corroborated by friends with more accurate thermometers and splitting the difference averages put the loch as low as perhaps 1 or 2 degrees at it’s coldest this winter. It’s currently around 6 degrees.
I swim in the loch in skins about five times a week. Sometimes it’s a dip lasting less than 10 minutes, sometimes it is over 20 minutes and I manage a decent swim. This depends on all sorts of variables including the water temperature, the air temperature, the weather conditions, the tide being in or out, the level of the waves, what the wildlife around me is doing and how I am feeling on any given day. I have had times when I went in calling back to Ady (who always accompanies me on my solo swims and stands on the shore, sometimes taking photos, sometimes collecting rubbish from the beach if it is after a storm and there is rubbish washed up) ‘I won’t be long…’ and then emerging after a new record for distance of swim or time in the water. Sometimes wading in thinking today is the day for breaking a personal record only to be spooked by an eagle, suddenly aware of loss of feeling in my toes or a low flying plane putting me off and coming back out again.
Up until today I have been donning my wetsuit still for my regular Sunday group swim with friends, feeling that it allows me to stay in for longer. But the last few times I have worn it it has felt like such an effort to pull it on pre-swim and I have felt constricted and irritated by wearing it, as though it is hampering my swim rather than aiding it. So today I arrived for our group swim in skins. And it did not prevent me from swimming as I would have done had I been wearing it, infact I am confident it was not missed at all and that I found swimming without it easier. It was also quite fun to be the only one in a group of nine without a wetsuit. I am always happy to be different!
I have had some of my best, deepest and most interesting conversations with people I swim with. I have made connections, lost inhibitions and found links with folk I would likely have little else in common with. It has been my opening in our new mainland life to a new social world and to interesting and diverse people.
It has provided me with my much needed link to the natural world and the landscape around us. I physically crave that connection with nature, with the weather, the seasons, the wildlife. On Rum my life was much more outside based and through necessity our new mainland existence means I am driving more and walking less. I am back in artificially controlled environments for a greater period of time with lights and heating and no windows. My near daily dips re-centre me and keep me in tune with a clock and calendar far beyond that which hangs on my wall or sends me reminders on my phone.
My relationship with the loch is much like the one I enjoyed with the hill on Rum. It provides challenges and inspiration, motivation and opportunity. It gives me headspace of a meditative nature and allows a mindless meandering of my thoughts and a wide open space for what is really important to rush in and show itself to me. I have epiphanies, realisations, eureka moments and clarity.
I am reminded how small I am, how insignificant and finite. I am conversely given the gift of feeling mighty, powerful, in control and autonomous. I can choose how long to stay in, which direction to head in, which stroke to select, I am at the absolute mercy of the waves, the tide, the unknown depths below me. I am entirely along in my experience in the loch, I am submersing myself in water which has always been on this planet and has been tears, sweat, a raindrop, a glass of water, an ice cube, a snowflake, a cloud…in a never ending cycle older than I will ever be, before my first ancestor, likely after the last of my line has become extinct.
It is mid March. I swam in summer, in autumn and I will swim in spring. But once again, with the echoes of voices in my ears about ‘not doing a winter’ I am able to take a small sense of pride in knowing that once again I did. This time I swam though it. I swam through a winter.