Monday, 10 April 2017

Country Roads (Take Me Home)

I am not, and I don't think I ever will be, a 'city girl'. I was brought up in Hertfordshire which, as I found when I first arrived at university, is apparently a county seen as 'basically London innit?' No. For the most part, no, it is not.

My Hertfordshire has very little to do with London, or any other city for that matter. My Hertfordshire is a small town with a street of shops and a street of restaurants, a wide town park, and beyond it fields on fields of crops, spattered here and there with tiny villages of increasingly ridiculous names (my favourite is 'Loudwater', because it truly belongs to a Tolkien novel). It's home to narrow country lanes and wide open spaces and the occasional forest. Not well known (9/10 people assume that I said 'Herefordshire' when they ask where I come from), nor very large, and certainly not a 'city' place, it has put deep roots in me that long to be surrounded by skies and grass, not buildings.

But so much of modern life demands buildings. Buildings are where jobs are. Cities are where jobs are. And, for me, cities are where universities are - so, through weeks of planning and applying and deliberating, I ended up in Sheffield.

I have often read of Sheffield that it is one of England's 'most under appreciated' cities. Its merit is then argued in many ways - the culture, the music (nearly always hand in hand with mention of the Arctic Monkeys), the food...

For me, the greatest merit of Sheffield is that, quite by chance, in it I stumbled across one of the least 'city-like' cities I've ever been in. Sheffield is on my Dark Peak OS map. Sheffield has more trees per person than any other city in Europe (a fact I genuinely quoted when explaining why I wanted to come here), outnumbering people 4 to 1. Over a third of the Sheffield district lies within the Peak District National Park. It has more types of habitat than any other city in the UK, and large parts are designated Sites of Scientific Interest.

I live approximately 35 minutes from Sheffield city centre. I live approximately 6 minutes from the start of a valley walk that brings me into the Peak District, that makes me feel at home.

I may live in a city, but if I walk 20 minutes from my home, I am a equal distance from that city and from one of England's most beautiful National Parks.

My new 'local patch', if you will, is the Porter Brook Valley. It says something about Sheffield that this valley - one of at least 5 which lead into Sheffield - has its own charity, the 'Friends of Porter Brook Valley'. It says something even more that the symbol of this charity - of a river which lies IN Sheffield, is a dipper.

Walking the Porter Valley from Sheffield outward is like an exercise in rewilding.. The river widens, the trees thicken, houses give way to rolling fields of sheep; sometimes I swear you can even feel the air getting fresher around you.

The walk along the Porter Brook essentially consists of walking through a succession of parks, each less suburban than the one before. Every time you cross a road, from one park to the next, the habitat gets slightly denser and the landscape becomes less manicured, until you've escaped urban life altogether.

Endcliffe Park, the first and nearest to the city centre, feels almost-but-not-quite like a city park. 'Almost', because it is, for the most part, long and narrow and surrounded by houses, and has ponds where claggy bread floats on the surface from over-enthusiastic duck feeding...but 'not quite', because of the dedication of the space to nature.

This is not just a 'recreation ground' style park - it is taken over in majority by deciduous trees that lean over the bubbling Porter brook, which itself runs in cascades of tiny waterfalls, the water the glorious brown of a wild river. It is landscaped, with a main concrete path, ponds, bridges, some too-big-to-possibly-be-real stepping stones - but not so much that it feels artificial. My favourite route is the dirt track on the nearside of the river to where I enter the park, which is narrow and muddy and best trodden in walking boots. At the moment, the far banks of the brook here are carpeted in purple crocus, waving daintily up at the tree boughs above them. Some are trodden down by dogs or plucked by children, but most stand tall, the unfailing sign that Spring is on the way.

From Endcliffe Park, you cross the road into Bingham Park, which is as urban or as rural as you want to make it. The main park has bowling greens and tennis courts, and lies a brisk walk up the steep valley side, while continuing on the lower path brings you into Whiteley Woods. Legend has it that the park came about just after the death of Queen Victoria, when the wealthy Mr Bingham asked his wife if he should buy her a set of pearls, or buy all the land within sight and donate it to the city for the children to play on. She chose the latter. The extent to which this is true, I'm not sure of...but it's a nice thought.

A steep, muddy climb on a narrow path through the trees leads you up the side of the valley to a wide track through the woodland, where the air is still and you feel quite alone. The sun gleams through the trees, illuminating the slippery drop down to the valley bottom through row on row of shrubs interspersed with saplings and their parents. This is the place for finding fungus, the place for finding quietude and peace. If you don't feel like peace and quiet, or you're wearing nice shoes, a concrete path leads along the valley bottom into Whiteley Woods.

I've made the lower path seem like the worse option - it isn't. Along the valley bottom, the Porter Brook is a gurgling backdrop to what is starting to feel like a proper woodland. On the other side of the river, allotments spring up, and houses start to give way to nature. This part of the valley is laden with history, and home to the Shepherd's Wheel Museum, a tiny building packed with Sheffield's industrial past. The mill pond beside it is a mirror, reflecting trees so clearly you forget that they aren't real.

Crossing another road brings you truly into Whiteley Woods. This is where the real nature starts, where areas off the path are wild and boggy and, from a stone in the river, the grey wagtail bobs in greeting. You walk on, cross another road, reach my favourite place - a set of stepping stones beside a ford, which are often covered by rising water after rain. This is a place to be intrepid, a place to be glad you put on walking boots. Something about crossing stepping stones is innately childlike - it triggers memories of leaping them when you were little, crossing them with your hand clasped tightly by a parent who's certain you'll slip and fall. If you're like me, you'll remember falling in, too. The story of how I 'jumped' into the River Dove as a two year old is legendary in my household.

The woods now are dense around you, like a cloak. The houses are concealed behind them, the steep valley sides rising to enclose the tree-lined river in its own private world.

Now you have to start making decisions. The path to the left of the river is incredibly well-maintained; without being concrete, it is well-constructed with drainage tunnels, preventing the quagmire that Winter in Sheffield does its best to encourage. A higher path runs beside a large pond, with views up hill to the twisting road to Ringinglow and the fields of sheep that run up to it, now that the houses are gone for good. A lower path runs beside the river, with frequent bridges lest you regret your choice of path and wish to switch. The left-hand path is steeper and muddier, but runs closest to the river and gives impeccable views of the light shafting through the green leaves, the rich browns of the Earth and water, and the 'wildest' (muddiest!) experience. If you can't decide, not to worry - you can always take the other path on the return journey!

Just as you've been walking for a little while, and are thinking that perhaps you might like to stop and have a drink and a little snack of something, and perhaps a sit-down to breathe in the fresh air you've travelled to, you reach Forge Dam.

Forge Dam is a remarkable place for, though I know it's barely a five-minute walk from Fulwood, a full suburb of houses and streets and cars, it feels as though you've driven to a remote place somewhere in the Peak District. There is a little park (with an extraordinary slide!), and an adorable café which serves, though I may be biased, some of the most delicious food a walker could possibly ask for. The amount of cake concentrated in that one small building is incredible. The wide array of chips and breakfast food and, if you're feeling slightly fancier, paninis, on offer, along with full meals, is all you could want and more. To top it all off, there's an all-year-round ice cream kiosk, and lots of seating outside. There's also a large pond, with plenty of ducks to feed (birdseed please, not bread!).

The café is one of my happy places, but for now we'll bypass it and press on up the river. Taking the steep bridleway up to the left of Forge Dam, looking down on the pond and the people enjoying their gorgeous food, you start to feel as though you are truly, now, in the English Countryside. The field to your left is filled with sheep, to your right is a wood, and in front of you, the landscape opens up and you sigh in satisfaction because, now, you are in the Dales.

From here on in, you're in the National Park. You're in the Peak District. It's been 45 minutes, and you're out of Sheffield so much so that the traffic noise and bustle seems worlds away.

Your options are spread out across the hills before you. Up to the left lies Holly Hagg Community Gardens in the pretty Peak District village of Ringinglow, through whose streets the path up towards Stanage Edge winds. Holly Hagg has recently seen a boom in popularity because of its 'Alpaca Treks' - certainly worth looking into!

The track before you begins to wind uphill, through a wooded valley where the river burbles and cascades every now and again into a proper waterfall; it becomes, in its higher reaches, the free-spirited stream you feel every natural river should be. The trees grow close around you, the floor is dense with leaf litter and slippery now with mud. You are in Porter Clough now, truly wild.

Just as you push your thighs into action, climbing the increasingly steep track, five picturesque bridges cross and recross the path, until you appear out of the trees, blinking in the sunlight, onto a country road. You look behind you now, down the hill, to the buildings of Sheffield far away. This is where you have been. You are in the countryside now, just an hours walk away.

Having walks like this so accessible gives me strength. When I feel alone, when I miss my family, when I need escape, the Peak District is just there on the horizon, and it calls me home. Somewhere in the silence of wild spaces is a voice that soothes me to the bone, and I am privileged to find it so close.

All photographs are taken by and belong to me, Annabel Lever. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Deep roots are not reached by frost.

A couple of months ago, as happens every so often, I was sent a survey from a student discount organisation with which I have an account. Often I completely disregard these - and if I do complete them, it's the multiple choice answers only, I'm never engaged enough to write anything longer.

This particular survey, however, was from the Woodlands Trust. I'm a Zoology student and a conservationist, and it's safe to say that I care about trees, so I was more than willing to put in a little extra effort. The questions were as you would expect, until one in particular: "Is there any tree in your life with special significance?". I can imagine a lot of people answered a quick 'no' to this question and asked themselves what sort of a person did have a significant tree in their life. 

I am the sort of person that does. My community are the sort of people who do.

A month or so after, when I was home from university at Christmas, I took my dog on a walk of which a part passed through an disused quarry near my home. There are several gravel pits like this in our area: one has been brilliantly transformed into a nature reserve, and another is on its way to becoming equally as good (credit for both of which is owed to Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, not the quarry company). This, the third, is as much a quarry as when it was in use, except that it's deserted. It consists of 'danger' signs and fences, graffiti-ed walls, tracks from dirt bikes and dystopian, lonely, abandoned machines. A path through this wreckage - of which an 'attempt' has been made to salvage by planting some scrubby trees and grassland herbs - leads up and onto a beautiful agricultural field and a wood. On the walk up this path, we encountered an older lady, walking poles in hand and waterproof on, who was stopped and staring over the gravel pit.

"Do you know if they'll manage to do this to the field up there?" she asked.

Her eyes were looking both at the quarry and beyond it into the past, and her tone quavered slightly with emotion. She told me about the times when this marred landscape was a field - when she was young, she said, her family used to walk through it and down into Waterford to the river. She remembered it as green and natural and whole. She, like me, had lived in the area her whole life - but she, unlike me, saw the transformation of this rural, greenbelt beauty into quarry.

We both knew that the opportunity for me to experience it was less that a hair's breadth away, because the field above us was under threat. The feeling hung heavy on the air. It was windy and rainy, desolate weather to match the mood, and her eyes were probably only watering from the cold - but there was enough emotion as we spoke that it could have been tears. My heart felt heavy.

What lightens my heart - what gives me, and her, and many other people in my community hope that this quarry may not come to pass - is the conviction and force with which the locals have risen up in defence of our greenbelt land.

There is a tree in the centre of this field - the Lonely Oak, we've always called it. This is our Significant Tree, and it has come to represent everything we value about the countryside we are so lucky to live beside, that we want to protect. When I saw that question in that survey, and I found myself writing what must have been paragraphs of answer in the small box beside it, I knew I had to write this post.

The truth is, I haven't managed to be that involved in the campaign. I've been too caught up in school work, too busy, too distracted - which only makes me value more the people who have invested so much in it. I'm writing to talk about these people, and this tree, and the strength of the community standing up for it.

This photo belongs to the Stop Bengeo Quarry website,

The force behind this tree, protecting this land which I've loved and lived in and walked through my whole life, is overwhelming. It is a kind of tireless dedication to fundraising and spreading awareness that I did not expect, and it fills me with overwhelming pride. There have been surveys; letters to councillors; petitions; articles in the local paper; videos; meetings; posters; family walks; activities celebrating the field and its natural beauty; bag sales; a fun day to raise money and awareness...the list goes on. The Lonely Oak stands adorned by ribbons and posters; tokens of the love of our people for the greenbelt countryside we grew up in, that we want our children to grow up in.

This is a field that I have adored. A field my family, my friends, my dogs have adored. It's where we walked every Boxing Day since before I was born to get to the pub at Chapmore End; where I took small steps as a toddler and escaped to on summer evenings as a teenager and screamed at the sky on a run when heading towards adulthood was becoming too much. It's where my dog loses his toys and where Red Kites land in the Lonely Oak, and where I go with my Mum to catch up with each other's lives.

It's a field that I don't want to lose. I don't want my community to lose it. I don't want the next generation to be unaware of what it was, to breathe air filled with dust from the quarry, to be kept up by the noise or to drink water that's tainted by it. 

I'm so proud of the people who've taken this into their hands, proud that so many people share this strong attachment to such a simple place. 

It's a hard path, defending something you love; particularly when it can't speak for itself, and the way in which you love it cannot be quantified by numbers or dates. It's easy to feel that the battle is futile, to assume the weight of a foregone conclusion and give in - but we have not. 

We have stood up for our countryside. 

We have stood up for our children. 

We will fight for our fields, our flowers, our birds, our greenbelt.

I hope to God that we win.

Image may contain: text and outdoor
This photo belongs to the Save Bengeo's Countryside Facebook Page

To SUPPORT the campaign, please: 

VISIT the website to find out more about the threats and how you can help:

GO TO the stall in Hertford on February the 18th (details on the Facebook page)

GET INVOLVED, however you can. 


Friday, 10 February 2017

In All Honesty: To Myself and To You

To anyone and no one; and mostly to myself.

I have not posted here in a very long time. To have to say that is not what I wanted when I started this blog. But it is a fact, and I will not pretend that it isn't.

The truth is, that sometimes it can be extraordinarily hard to work out how you really want to spend your time - and even harder to act on it. When I first made this blog, it was because I thought that in the future I might like to become a wildlife or nature journalist, and that to have a blog would be a good idea. I put a lot of pressure on myself to write like a journalist, because I thought that's what I wanted...but all it did was make me feel that I couldn't write what I wanted to write. I thought that I needed to do Serious, Meticulously Researched Articles about important global issues; about conservation; about things that I am passionate about...but that honestly I'm neither informed enough to write about nor blessed with time to research, as I would if it were my job. As a result, I felt defeated before I'd even begun, and so I didn't push myself to progress with writing anything at all, and the blog very quickly fell silent.

I'm not a journalist, and right now, when my life is filled with studying, writing like one doesn't really make me happy. All I am is a person, who loves the country and the wild spaces that made her.

Like a true heroine of a Victorian novel, I was doing some thinking today, on a walk in the pouring, freezing February rain (but, unlike these unfortunate women, I had a waterproof to prevent the classic tragic 'I've caught a cold and died' ending that would make all this thinking redundant) and I realised that how I feel when I'm outside is how writing used to make me feel. It should make me feel empowered, free, happy...not pressured or intimidated.

I consider myself to be a selfless person. A hard worker. I'm conscientious and driven and dedicated to my studies - to an extent that frankly isn't always necessary. These things often result in me perhaps focusing too much away from myself, not giving myself the time and the attention and the love that I deserve. Writing is a part of this; it did - does - make me happy, and it's something I don't want to lose.

Writing is a part of me that feels like it's been missing for a long time, that got lost somewhere in the exams and the revision and the Learning to Achieve. If I'm going to stand any chance of getting back into it again, into loving it like I used to, I need to write on my own terms, in my own way - and I need to be brave enough to do that, even if it means that no one wants to read what I write.

So, as of 2017, there are going to be some new rules:

1 - I will write what I want, when I feel like it, and I will not put pressure on myself to write anything in particular or a certain number of times per week or month or year.
Disclaimer: This probably means some random pieces of fiction may appear in the form of short stories or snapshots.

2 - I will do more to further other creative interests. This one is already in play! I've started a photography Instagram with the username clutteredmind_wildheart (Go to it here!). Posting on it and getting such positive responses is making me very happy and really inspiring me to continue - if you've managed to read this much of this post, reward yourself by checking it out! It's all photos of the outdoors, mostly in the Lake District (and quite a few of my dog) :)

3 - I will write in my own voice. Blogs are supposed to be personal, and I know that I can write about the outdoors and the natural world, all the things I'm passionate about, without feeling pressured to sound like an article or a journalist. I can write like me. Even if no one else wants to read it, I will enjoy writing it.

4 - I will not be afraid to be creative - if I want to write a poem, I'll write a poem. No one has to enjoy it but me.

5 - I will make the time to write. I will make time to get out into the outdoors, where I feel most at home. I will enjoy my time. I will stop standing in my own way.

I am the heroine of this story, and I will write with my heart.

I hope you decide to stick with me and see what comes out! Thanks for getting through this one; it's mostly been a cathartic exercise for me, but I hope good things are inspired by my starting over.
Here's a picture of Pippin looking very happy on his first ever visit to the Peak District, to reward you for getting through all this Annabel Stuff :)