Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Calderdale Way Relay Part 2: the race

Team A and B leg 5-ers

As the race date of December 13 approached, I felt fairly confident I'd done as much training as I could have in the time available. I'd come a long way since the recce and I was beginning to feel fit again. I'd cut a bit off my October 10k time (it is now 47.17) and shaved a bit off my 5 mile time too (now 36.34 - getting closer to my PB of 35.17). Although my hill training hadn't been great, I'd done at least some, hard, off-road hill running with my team-mate, Leah, and made a couple of the MKAC sessions where I had done comparatively OK. I'd also been keeping up the OURC Fartleks on Tuesday lunchtimes and had even done two sessions of the relentless 800 m efforts around Woughton field (excellent training for the body, as the recoveries are brutally short, and for the mind, as there's nothing but pain to experience)!

I went up a couple of days beforehand to stay with Gary's parents and had a wonderful time being generally fed and cared for. We had a lovely drive out to the Dales, and I bought some last-minute essentials (compass and whistle, which you must have or your whole team may face disqualification)!

On Saturday, Glyn and Janette dropped me off at the team hostel, which was a far cry from the cosiness of Nelmes Towers. After a long trip down a precipitous and snaking mud track, the hostel was found to be a breeze block building with no-one there apart from some grumpy teenagers and a surly youth leader. Eventually we located the key, and opened up the building to find a barren interior. But the place was wonderfully warm, so G and J felt happier leaving me there. Five minutes passed, and Andy, Annick and Julie arrived, muddy and fresh from their recce. They seemed exhilarated and keen for the race the following day. Soon everyone else arrived, and after tea and cake and a little physics we headed off, with torches, to the pub. Dinner took ages but was tasty. Everyone was very sensible and headed back early to bed - but we waited up to cheer Jim Miller in for our team photo.

I slept well, surprisingly (only a baby, regular snuffle-snore from one of my room-mates threatened to disturb me). When Leah and I got up, most people had already set off for the start of their leg ... so we lounged (as far as it was possible) and ate breakfast. We then set off, and parked up at Whinstalls for registration. We knew we were going to have to start with the 'masses' as the MKAC B Team were never going to be fast enough to make the leg 5 cut-off time. Unfortunately, this meant one hour hanging about in an exposed area in the bleak cold. This had its interest, however, as there was plenty to look at and race atmosphere to soak up. Fell runners look amazing. They are really wiry but muscular at the same time, and I was reminded of deers rutting as the men and women whipped off their over-trousers to reveal threateningly muscular, lean legs. I looked a fool in a clown-like hat and brand-new, entirely untested off-road shoes, which, to add insult to injury, were LUMINOUS yellow. There was lots of pre-race chat, which was actually very friendly, despite the threat of clashing antlers.

Anyway, our A team just met the cut-off, which was exciting, and then we, the leg 5 B team, set off with the masses. The rhythm was halting to begin with, as there were probably about 100 starting. The first mile or so was spent running slowly and queuing at stiles (of which there are, apparently, 40 on this 7.5 mile leg)! After that, things spread out quickly and there were few in front and behind. The race is a bit of a blur. I remember some brilliantly fun downhill leaping a couple of miles in, bright sunlight against short green grass and white, dried grass tops, blue-black reflections from the scant road sections and then lots and lots of very deep mud (which absorbs leg energy at every step). I tackled the cobbled hill part of the race heroically, and was proud to run the whole thing - even overtaking a few. However, perhaps it was this immense energy expenditure that led me, about 5 miles in, to rapidly fade. I had also definitely made some serious errors.
  • First, I had inadequate hill training.

  • Second, I had underestimated how much energy is needed to climb 1500 m. Normally I wouldn't bring food on a short race like this (I only use energy drinks or jelly babies for half marathon and above) but breakfast at 8 and no lunch with a race start at 1 pm meant that I was totally drained at 5 miles.
Leah was immensely encouraging, however, and I somehow dragged my drained body up the final hills. Somewhat distracting, as well, was a couple in possession of a prized baton, who kept overtaking us on the flat (while we overtook them on the hills). With this to focus the mind, and with Leah's rousing words, I found a second wind emerging from within (and it wasn't indigestion). As we arrived on the final road section, I began to realise that I could manage a fast finish. The feet hit welcoming, inflexible tarmac, and I was even beginning to close the gap between me and Leah. I focused the mind again. From the recce, and with Leah's reminding words, I knew I had under a mile so I could easily compartmentalise this into an imaginary 'interval' from my training sessions. I also knew it was mainly flat, so could build up speed without risk. I also had a glimmering notion of tactics. There was a narrow lane at the very finish of the course, so it was crucial that Leah and I entered this together, and before the couple with the baton who had been chasing us. So, with these visions in mind, I set to the challenge, focusing on Leah's pink jacket just ahead. The man with the baton was challenging us - and gave us a focus for our speed, but he couldn't go ahead as he needed to slow down for his partner (both must finish together). So I nipped into the lane before him, with Leah behind, and we funnelled down the final lane. We arrived - elated - to see the Team A leg 5-ers, and some others, waiting for us. It was so nice to see them. Merrian gave me some much-needed energy drink and I sat down thankfully on a welcoming wall. Team A had done the leg in 1.15, and we had done it in 1.24.47, which was about 6 mins faster than our recce. We were pleased.

We put on as many layers as we could and drove to the leg 6 (and race) finish to find most of the rest of our team. We were covered in mud, hungry and exhausted, but the challenge was exhilarating, new, and finished. I felt so pleased to have been part of such an exciting event.

The finish

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Apparently, it is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception today. Or at least, that is what my Grandma, Frances, used to tell me (it also happened to be her birthday - she died one year ago, the day before Gary and I ran the Amsterdam Marathon).

This is a photo of her mother (also Frances) with her husband, George. We don't know who the baby is. Her mother (my Great Grandmother) vanished into an institution for her whole life, and so my grandma (and, indeed my father and his sister) never knew her. We only recently discovered this and don't know why. The reason given (that she went 'religious' and lit a lot of candles after her husband's war-related death) doesn't seem to add up.

This year the brevity of life has hit me hard. I want to make sure I pay proper attention to keeping up with family as well as friends.

Look at that seagull and its cubs!

Remark made by a Glaswegian security guard. It will never stop being funny.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Forest Schools

Every Thursday I volunteer as a 'Forest Schools' assistant with a local school. Forest Schools is an initiative which aims to get children out of the classroom in order to learn about the natural world, to learn how to use tools, to take responsible risks and to cooperate. I'm working with children of only five years old.

Doing the volunteering has been such a learning curve. I don't know any children of that age - so I didn't know what they could and could not do (and I'm still finding out). I've also found assisting the children such a challenge - it is so practical, and involves common sense and confidence (both of which I sometimes lack). With Forest Schools, the idea is to let children take some responsibility, so it was initially difficult not to over-direct them when they pick up a huge, dangerous-looking stick. But I'm learning.

Up until now we've just been using the school grounds as our outdoor classroom - to get them familiarised with the routine. This involves changing into wellies and Forest Schools kit (which seems to take an age!), opening the Forest School door with an imaginary key, and returning to the teacher when the owl whistle goes. The most important thing, however, is setting up the Forest School boundary - with its red and white tape - to ensure the children don't run off. It was very important, initially, to get this properly established.

Over the past few weeks we've been making collages with autumn leaves, learning about nocturnal animals, and learning about the habits of squirrels by hiding and finding conkers. But this week was different. We all walked to a tiny area of woodland in a nearby school.

When the children got into the wood, they were very excited, and ran off in all directions. I tried very hard to keep an eye on my three children - but they soon were hidden amongst the trees. Almost immediately there were children climbing, scrambling in the mud and generally enjoying being outside. Some were a little tentative and worried about getting scratched. Others were swinging from branches.

The children were so excited that we had no time for an activity and spent the whole time playing and climbing trees. However, quite a bit had been learned. By the end of the session we had found a huge worm and heard from one child how they made compost from peelings, we'd found several mushrooms and we'd made a teasle and leaf 'soup'. There were also several kids who had never climbed a tree before climbing. It was great to see. The best bit was when I saw one of the children call out and help another less able child across a ditch (she was stuck and a little bewildered by the whole thing).

It's fascinating see all the different children's abilities and personalities and how they interact. But I am now exhausted after only two hours!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The trilobite (Richard Fortey, 1993) and a fossil bivalve (Hannah W. 2009)

The trilobite had the shape and feel of an artefact; something of the neatness and symmetry of a medallion. Like a medallion it could sit comfortably in the palm of my hand. The fossil showed a head, with its eyes, and a middle lobe, a tail, and a thorax with perhaps a dozen segments – a complicated animal despite its antiquity. I remember a curious feeling, as if in some way this revelation to my hammer after so long a sleep in the bedding of the rock had not just been a matter of serendipity. Perhaps I had been intended to find that trilobite, to make the blow upon just that piece of rock, and to release that very messenger from the past into the world to tell its story. I became aware of the continuity of things. There was a thread running between this trilobite and this investigator. At the time the only feeling I would have been able to articulate was one of specialness of the moment and of the place, a kind of contentment I could hug to myself. The excitement of the find was physical, like any kind of hunting. But the metaphysical component was there, too, at the very least a species of shock to be made aware of how long this place had existed as a haven for life – why else should this stone-bug, preserved in fossil clay in part and counterpart, have seemed as if sent to me as a talisman?

Richard Fortey(1993) The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past, London, Pimlico.

It turns out that what Hannah found in the Brickhills (part of the Woburn Sands formation of greensands, I think) was a fossil bivalve, possibly from the lower cretaceous. The chap at MKNHS identified it as being a fossil that may have been uplifted from older to younger areas of rock. Wow - I've witnessed the finding of a fossil for the first time!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Runner's high (Mike Spino, 1971)

[With] my first step I felt lighter and looser than ever before. My shirt clung to me, and I felt like a skeleton flying through a wind tunnel. My times at the mile were so fast that I almost felt like I was cheating. It was like getting a new body that no-one else had heard about. My mind was so crystal clear that I could have held a conversation. The only sensation was the rhythm and the beat, all perfectly natural, all and everything and everything part of everything else ... distance, time, motion were all one. There were myself, the cement, a vague feeling of legs, and the coming dusk. I tore on. I could have run and run. Perhaps I had experienced a physiological change, but whatever, it was magic. I came to the side of the road and cried tears of joy and sorrow. Joy for being alive; sorrow for a vague feeling of temporalness, and a knowledge of the impossibility of giving this experience to anyone.

Mike Spino (1971) 'Running as a spiritual experience', in J. Scott (Ed.), The Athletic Revoltion (p. 222) New York, Free Press.

New superheroes spotted!


Friday, 20 November 2009

Record of this week's training

Tuesday was the pleasantly-titled 'Fartlek' or 'speed play' session with the OURC. I am not sure whether what we do on a Tuesday is technically fartlek or more properly 'intervals', but we did a set of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 along a 10 k route, with variously timed recoveries. I was pleased with the training - I felt much stronger than the previous week (when I'd also been fighting nausea from a very heavy weekend).

I was able to keep up with some of the faster ones, but I wasn't very consistent. I tended to start off slowly and then try hard in the last minute. It's a good route that we do, with plenty to look at - part of Willen lake and the 'enchanted forest' by the Ouzel on the way back.

Today was the (as Mark would put it) murderous 800 m intervals around Woughton Campus field. We had to do eight of these, with sixty-second recoveries. Boy, it was tough. Our first splits were 3 mins, and then 2.58, but then we slipped to 3.05. After that it was very difficult to keep below 3.10. My legs felt very heavy, but the lungs were (relatively) fine. I have so much fitness to build up before December 13, let alone for the London Marathon on April 25. On reflection I think the short recoveries and the sponginess of the grass make this session very hard. It's also much more monotonous. But I feel pleased to have got through it in reasonable splits, and running on grass (if flat) is better training than running on the road for Calderdale.

My last session of the week will be hill running with Leah in the Brickhills - which should do a slightly better job of emulating the hills of Calderdale. We'll try for 1 hour 30 mins I should think - running up and down as many horrible hills we can find.

Hill run
This was much more fun than the relentless field intervals. Leah called for me on Sunday pm and drove us to the woods - Milton Keynes's adult playground (the car park is packed, even early in the morning, with the cars of walkers, runners, mountain bikers, and people who do 'cross-country theatre' in capes and masks, with sticks). Somehow we managed to avoid a deluge and caught the last of the afternoon's yellow sun. Leah took us on a circuit which involved a variety of hills, and we practised splurging through mud without caution, and running downhill over leaves (which can be tricky as you don't know what tree roots etc lurk underneath them).

As we were running, we saw four or five fantastic fly agaric in full bloom, which gleamed out, wet and jelly-like, from plump cushions of brown leaves.

Once we'd done the circuit, we ran over to do the biggest hill we could find - which basically takes you from the level of the road up to the top of the Brickhill Woods mound. We ran down the whole thing, and then ran up. It was terrible - and once again, Leah (despite her week of gruelling training) was way ahead of me. Still, I ran the whole thing and recovered quickly, which is the best I can hope for I guess. Ahh - I'm looking forward to feeling strong in the legs again ... wonder how long it will take.

As I was running I was wondering how Brickhill Woods formed, geologically speaking. Why this lump in the middle of all this flat? Why all the sand, with occasional patches of clay? Is the thing that my friend Hannah found there, a few months ago, a fossil ammonite? I am hopefully about to find out as I'm going to a talk on Milton Keynes's geology tomorrow at Milton Keynes Natural History Society (which I have just joined). This should mesh nicely with my work on Exploring Science (The Open University's Level 1 Science Course). I've just read Book 2 (Earth and Space) which covers some basic geology.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Fiona's Moustache

I feel compelled to blog about Fiona's moustache. Fiona is raising money for prostate cancer by wearing a moustache for the whole of November. But, as usual, she has her own creative take on this - she wears a different moustache every day, complemented by a different moustache-inspired costume. The office waits to see what she'll be wearing each day!
Here's the link to her page - which shows all of her different outfits and moustaches so far. Feathers, fake eyelashes and fake fur are just some of the materials she has used to decorate her upper lip!

Calderdale Way Relay Part 1: recce

A couple of months ago, I received an email from Milton Keynes AC, my running club, asking for volunteers for the Calderdale Way Relay. This is organised by the Halifax Harriers AC, in the middle of December. It is a relay of 6 legs, run in pairs, over 50 miles of the Calderdale Way. MKAC has sent two teams up to the race every year for several years, but they have never sent up a mixed team. This year, however, enough women signed up to do so. 'Club history', so lovely legs Brian says!

The relay is, in essence, fell running - which I have never done before. I have run the Dunstable 20, on the Dunstable Downs, and the Ridgeway run (Tring AC's 10ish-mile race). These were off road, autumnal, and undulating, but nothing like running in Yorkshire, in the middle of Winter. However, I have been wondering for a while whether I'd be able to tackle more difficult terrain. I like running off road - for the views, the variety and the hopping about. I find it exhilharating (unlike Gary who hated breaking his 'rhythm' and thought it was a recipe for injury)!

The big problem for me with this type of race is navigation. I have absolutely no sense of direction whatsoever. I get lost walking home. If a tree drops its leaves on a route I've learned, I'm scuppered. This is where my friend Leah comes in. Leah is both extremely tough (she is training for an Ironman competition in July next year) and she can tell where she is going. And she has agreed to be my partner for Leg 5. She is also extremely reliable: she'll never cancel a run, even if it is pouring down with rain, and she's always on time. She's brilliant.

So last weekend, we went up to Yorkshire to try out our leg. The Calderdale Way passes just by Gary's parents' house, so I thought it would be a good excuse to drop in on them, and get to know the area in which Gary grew up. We arrived on Saturday after a long, slow drive up the M1, and were immediately sat down in front of lovely hot bowls of soup from Gary's mum, Janette. No sooner had it finished, that Gary's dad, Glyn, whisked me and Leah out in the car to show us the points on the route he'd found (he'd already been doing some detective work during the week and marked up some maps with highlighter). We both got a sense of the terrain and the landscape as we peered through the car windows at the pale yellow winter sun filtering through the low cloud and down over the valleys. Glyn was at pains to let us know that it was hilly, it was muddy, that we were mad. And, what's more, it was hell up north. I was beginning to feel a not inconsiderable amount of trepidation, especially after the threat of a post-run cold hosepipe.

Anyway, we got back home, consulted Leah's map and realised: it was the wrong one for our leg. However, just before we'd left for Yorkshire, I had chanced on a posting on the Halifax Harriers website that stated that a group from their club was planning on recceing the route that very Sunday. At this, Gary's dad sprung into action and called the contact on the bottom of the information sheet. Within minutes, we were invited to tag along with them the following day. This was a Godsend.

The next day was mild, calm and sunny with just a little cloud. This, too, was very lucky as the preceding days had been windy and rainy. After trying on various combinations of layers (somewhat nervously) we set off, with Glyn, to the start. When we arrived at Winstalls there were already several cars lined up along the road by the starting stile. Various beshorted and betree-trunked-thighed invidividuals were warming up. They looked formidable. We hoped they weren't the Halifax Harriers. They were. But luckily, they weren't the group we were going out with. After a couple more car loads of people arrived (from different Northern ACs), our group appeared. Two men (Paul and Mike) and two women (Sharon and Deborah). Hope I have the names right - I am bad with names. Leah and I felt very lucky to have been allowed to accompany them.

I was really quite nervous when I set off, and my breathing was shallow. As we plunged straight into a bog of chilly water, I began to think about how little hill training I had done, how unused I was to rough terrain, and how southern I was. How would I compare? But these fears soon left me as I started to concentrate on my rhythm, and got talking to everyone -the group was so warm, welcoming, friendly and encouraging. They were also very helpful, pointing out where we'd been, showing us the difficult-to-see gaps in the holly and giving us sips of water and tips on how to run in mud up hills.

I must say that it was very difficult to concentrate on where we were going as we needed to look at our feet in order to stay upright. But we tried our best to note all the twists and turns and to take in the stunning views. What is left in my memory is a somewhat blurred but bright impression of the day - with the end of the autumn colours.

Leah ran very strongly up the hills. She was up there with the men. I was in the middle, looking up at her pink jacket in the distance. I didn't perform as well as I could with training - but I kept going, and ran all the way up the three main hills. I think that was a good accomplishment given the amount of training I've done so far. And I was pleased that I was left with some strength at the end. But I must say that I have been trying to work out just how much hill training I can fit in between now and December 13!

The leg took us 1 hour and 30 minutes, and we were picked up by Glyn who took us straight home for a tasty curry that he had cooked up for us, and some of my rather solid banana cake (better heated, I think). Leah and I both really enjoyed the run and felt grateful for all the help we'd had with lifts, food and shelter from Glyn and Janette, and navigation and encouragement from the Halifax Harriers. We're both really looking forward to the race now - but plan to walk the route the day before to refresh our memories.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Blenheim 10k: 25 October 2009

Laura sprints to the finish

Gary's impish mind was consistently whirring to flatter, bully and cajole his friends into accompanying him on various ludicrous exploits. This was very positive for me: it introduced me to a fabulous group of people, brightened my life, and opened up possibilities and adventures which I wouldn't have dreamed up my own. Some of these exploits were full-blown excursions complete with costume and theme, such as the Tour of Buckinghamshire. Others were simple, focused goals aimed to improve body and mind - such as reaching a personal best in the marathon and opening oneself up to the discipline and suffering required for success.

We're all keen to keep doing things together, and very soon after it all happened, Laura suggested that we do a 10k in the majestic surroundings of Blenheim Palace. It was great to have this to look forward to, and although I didn't do nearly enough training, it encouraged me to keep my running ticking over so that I would be fit enough to do a half-decent time.

I suggested we turn up an hour before the race - which was really rather too keen. When me, Julia, Laura, Chris and Matt (another one!) turned up in a taxi we were relieved to see that they had at least finished putting up the portaloos. There were also some lean and hardy types already there, busily greasing up their parts in that shameless way that is suddenly acceptable in a pre-race context. Anyway, this left us more than enough time to pick up our numbers, empty our bladders (several times) and (in my case) gaze blankly at the course map.

I was just savouring the scent of crushed-grass-mingled-with-tent characteristic of the amateur road race when Emma and Matt DJ appeared from the car park, with positive but resigned expressions. They were closely followed by Jackie, who had just flown in from a week-long trip in the States and thus feeling a little weary. The complications of safety pins overcome, we made our way over to the start, after having burdened Chris (our supporter) with our wallets, jumpers and phones.

It was a mild day for October, but a bit breezy, and it was chilly waiting for the start in our variously minimal outfits. To make matters worse, a rather verbose woman insisted on informing us about the race charity. I'm sure the cause was worthy, but we were cold, and we'd paid, hadn't we?! Eventually we were released from the agony. I instantly felt the pressure of the bladder but hoped that somehow the liquid would be reabsorbed into the body and used when I was thirsty. I don't know if this does happen in the human biology, but it should.

So we were off. It was a glorious Autumnal day, and the bright low sun was perfectly positioned to light the red, yellows and browns of the leaves. Not long after the start we crossed the bridge over the lake - an inspiring sight, and a cheery stranger exclaimed to me 'How beautiful! This is fun!' I'd started off slowly, but soon sped up a little, and left the main body of our group. Matt was up ahead and hoping for a time of about 42 or 43 minutes. I was hoping for (at the very least) under an hour.

I really enjoyed the route which went right up to the palace, and skirted the lake (including some nice wooded areas bordering the water). It wasn't a busy race which allowed for plenty of space (which Nina likes) and I love a hilly race. I find that going up the hills occupies the mind, and going down provides an opportunity for speed. As I'd started near the back I had loads of people to pass and I wasn't doing too badly. But I have really lost a lot of stamina - my legs tired half way round and I really struggled towards the end. One feature about this race (which usually I would curse) is that two sections doubled up (so you could see faster runners coming back as you were going up). In this case I liked it because I spotted most of the group either ahead or behind me and was able to wave! This kept the mind off the feeble legs.

I managed a reasonably fast finish and was able to hold off a couple of stealthy sprinting males (the kind who, previously passed by you, creep up in revenge at the finish line). I then rejoined Matt and Ben (who had finished in about 43 and 58 minutes respectively) to cheer the others in. Everyone finished really strongly - Laura got a PB and beat several keen competitors! Jonathan, who was sadly unable to race due to a clinging virus, took a photo to prove it, and got nearly all of us crossing the line.

After we'd caught our breaths we met up with Rich who'd cycled all the way from Kings Sutton. We then popped into a local pub ON THE A44 JUST NORTH OF WOODSTOCK (as we kept having to tell the (lost) taxi driver on our return). We may or may not have usurped another party's table, but we enjoyed a series of tasty roasts. How satisfying it is to stuff oneself after strenuous activity! We ate heartily and discussed our various approaches to the race.

Laura was well pleased with her PB, and recce of Blenheim (which will be the site of her debut triathlon next June). Jackie had got round in an admirable time with just one run in a year and jet lag fatigue. The new Matt was pleased with his time given the hills and wind. Emma and Matt's knees had held out, and the only obvious injury was a slight scratch to an ankle in a discreet dive into the bushes. Chris hadn't run off with our credit cards and kept mumbling something about 'getting into training seriously'. Julia had survived brilliantly on minimal training, and her appetite for tea, which was flagging worryingly the previous day, had returned. And Nina was well trained for her Argentinian 15 k 'fun run' in the Andes.

I had a wonderful time, Laura, thank you.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Working in the reed beds

I've recently been volunteering with The Parks Trust once a week on some of their practical conservation projects. One of these is the management of the reed beds surrounding Walton Lake.

These are an important habitat in Milton Keynes - I think they are the biggest reed beds that we have in the local area. Martin also mentioned that last winter we had a couple of bitterns overwintering here from Holland or Germany. (Unfortunately it's unlikely that they will breed and boom, because the area isn't big enough to allow them to feed. They are fussy eaters and, unlike the omnivorous herons, won't eat anything but fish! ) The reed beds also provide habitat for reed warblers and water rails - and I have also observed lots of frog and toad tadpoles as well as caddis fly larvae of two different kinds, dragonflies and damselflies. A while back I went down to the reed beds in the early morning with Gary and Nina, and we listened to the sparkling, varied, 'pouring' sound of the warblers (which have now gone back to Africa). Gary wrote about it here.

Anyway, the RSPB recently gave The Parks Trust some advice on how to manage the reed beds - and they felt that we needed to reduce the willow and alder carr around the beds to prevent them from gradually becoming overtaken by woodland.

It seems terribly destructive to be removing trees - but I guess the ideas is that we're trying to manage the habitat to allow a diversity of species to survive. And, added to this, the reed bed habitat is very distinctive. I hadn't realised that you can go into the area but you can, and it's like another world in there! The reeds (phragmites communis) are well over 6ft tall. The picture above shows us going in for the first time. We needed to use scythes to cut a path through.

Working in the reed beds is hard, because the area is boggy. It is also difficult to pull the felled trees up and out over the banks. In addition to this, we're coppicing at waist height, so that a contractor (who is being brought in) can see the stumps in amongst the reeds and treat them to prevent further growth. Coppicing at such a height means that the branches of the felled trees catch in the stumps.

However, it's immensely satisfying doing physical work - both physcially and emotionally. I love being active, working with the others and learning about the habitat. It's great to see the physical progress made in just one day. It's also very rewarding learning new skills: I'm trying hard to use the bow saw in an efficient manner and watching the others' technique.

The next task in the reed beds is to cut paths through the reeds. The aim of this is to create little waterways for the birds and fish, and to provide a good place from which bitterns can feed (they like to hunt from the edges).

At the end of each day I'm adding to a log of practical conservation work to build towards a possible career change to environmental education (at some point in the future).

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Sewing, knitting, craft circle!

Over the past year we've been having the odd craft evening now and then - but we're now trying to establish something a little more regular. The first of these involved Melissa, Emma, Christina, Shasha and me - and although we probably did more eating of crumble than sewing we did get somewhere!

  • Shasha started customising a jumper with peppermint sequins. They look really effective.

  • I sewed up another musette as a souvenir for people who'd helped in the ToB

  • I reminded Emma and Christina of how to cast on. Knitting samples were made!

  • Melissa started a bead ring.

We had a great chat and crafted until late, discussing our future projects and what's going on in our lives. Session 2 is tomorrow at another member's house - we're swapping venues each week. It's lovely being in the company of creative people - I need inspiration!

Monday, 5 October 2009

One for sorrow

Macabre, you may think, but look at the beautiful green on the tail and the blue on the wing.

Friday Night Ride to the Coast

I've always biked everywhere to get to places (due to lack of driving abilities) but the experience of cycling with Gary has inspired me to try longer rides with a road bike (rather than tootling about on a Brompton). The recent Tour of Buckinghamshire has spurred me on, and brought me into contact with other enthusiastic cyclists and other possibilities. I'm not quite up to the standard of an 80-mile sportif (the likes of which Iftkhar keeps sending me links to), and I definitely can't keep up with the hard nuts who go out from the OU at lunchtime. But Clive (one of the ToB team leaders) has introduced me to a more approachable way of extending the miles - the Friday Night Ride to the Coast.

The fnrttc group meets at Hyde Park Corner in London, on nights when the moon is at its fullest. You have probably guessed it, but they then cycle to a bit of coast - this year the list has included Southend, Brighton and Whitstable, although next year the list of destinations looks to be growing. This Friday's ride was to Southend, and I chose to go on it as the gentlest, shortest ride (55 miles).

It was an unusual and inspiring experience. We got the train just after 10 and then cycled to Hyde Park. Cycling in central London is a bit hairy - especially for a non-driver with only a vague sense of the highway code - but it was exhilarating. I just copied the bike in front while trying to keep my brain engaged. Arriving at Hyde Park I was confronted with the biggest array of luminous jackets I think I've ever seen (sort of like coming home, as I usually live in mine)! We set off just after midnight, under a cloudy but relatively bright moon, and whizzed past some of the most famous London sights illuminated - Big Ben, The London Eye in resplendent purple ... it was an experience to remember. It was particularly 'disengaging' (in the sense of giving you a sense of separation from reality) to see all the clubbers and general revellers of London doing their thing as we did ours. And the clubs offered snippets of soundtrack to our ride. Anyway, I'd started chatting to the lovely Bernie at Hyde Park corner, and we stuck together throughout most of the journey encouraging each other and chatting away (it was B's first time too).

The cycle was very well organised and the waymarking worked like clockwork. Various experienced riders held back and signalled the way, and then whizzed back to the front to carry on. I particularly enjoyed seeing the chaps on recumbents speeding back and forth - they looked like daredevil beetles with bobbing heads. It was only about three-quarters of the way through that I realised that there were several people on bikes with no gears! There was also a chap on a Brompton, and I sort of wished I was on mine. It would have been doable - the pace was very manageable, and it felt very free and easy. I wondered why, and then someone told me we had a following wind all the way.

We stopped half-way at a service station to refuel and caffeinate ourselves, which was another surreal moment. As we piled all our bikes inside, I realised I had dropped in on this station before in a car! I'd never have thought that my next visit would be like this.

The service station!

Setting off again after coffee and cake was hard, but we soon got the legs going. It was liberating cycling on empty roads, zooming around huge roundabouts without a care, watching the stream of lights and reflective jackets sweep by in an arc.

After a while we left the big roads and ended up on some unlit hedge-edged roads. Here I felt I needed to be more cautious, and kept a firm eye on the road surface. I was amazed to see the fearless recumbents cycling on the wrong side of the road, around bends and so low down, to overtake the general stream. It was at this, the darkest point, that one of the group had a puncture, and as we stopped to wait, I employed all my layers (wool base layer, hat with ear flaps, full gloves). I felt quite smug that I had actually chosen just the right amount of clothes to bring.

That said, the early hours of the morning were definitely the hardest. The mind started to wander and thoughts of loss panged in. Sometimes even the craziest of diversions just can't distract.

At East Tilbury we had a diversion and a short cultural talk from the ride leader, Simon. He explained the history behind Bata Town which was interesting, but which was also a ploy to ease out the ride length a little further, as we couldn't get into the cafe for breakfast until 7 am!

We also stopped at a point to admire the lights and the view over what was probably the sea. By this stage the physical energy was there but the brain was beginning to fade, and I felt almost like falling asleep while freewheeling down some of the hills. I had to wake myself up by sprinting up a hill - which had me coughing for the next five miles.

Pausing to look at the lights

Gradually the sky began to lighten, and we stopped again to look at the sea, before cruising along all the 'No Cycling' signs along the promenade. The wind grew stronger, and the folded sails of the boats whistled and knocked insistently against hundreds of masts. The sea gulls' cries mingled with the wind rushing through sea grass. It was a melancholy but intriguing soundscape set against vast mud flats backed by grey-violet light.

As we came up to the cafe, past the gaudy signs of 'Adventure world', I was looking forward to refreshment. I was truly exhausted, mentally if not physically, and my eyes kept closing as I sat waiting for breakfast. It eventually came in the form of fried bread, egg, beans and mushrooms, and a cup of tea AND coffee and several packets of sugar. Immediately I felt much perked - and ready to find the station back to London and then MK. Some crazies on fixies and recumbents were cycling back to London!

In the cafe at the end

I thought I'd sleep on the train but chatted about cycling and running all the way back. I must have been a bore. I hope I can make the next one. It was a fabulous experience. Going without sleep for a night needs to be done - it gives you a new perspective on time and the limits of your endurance. I didn't sleep on Saturday, either (save for one hour) but went to bed at nine. Yes, I slept really rather soundly.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Tour of Buckinghamshire: Report from Jonathan Davies

Assembled for the start (by Verity W)

On the morning of day 1, we assembled in the OU car-park for a motivational briefing from our esteemed team leaders. To kick the event off, several brave souls put their necks on the line in a time trial - 3 laps of the OU ring-road - won by Matt Derbyshire.

Ring-Road race start (by Verity W)

Inspired by the time-trial heroics, we set off for Hartwell House near Aylesbury some 31 miles away and the equivalent of a full Tour de France stage for some of us rookies. Immediately following the first hill climb of the day into Oving, won by Richard Golding, we stopped for lunch and were served with the musettes, whose scrumptious contents included sausage rolls and an array of cakes and sweets to keep us all going. The musettes themselves are perfect souvenirs, as the picture below attests.

Wearing the musettes (by Matt D-J)

After a second points climb up Waddesdon Hill, won by Matt (Howells?) the peleton arrived, more or less together, at the magnificent Hartwell House. Here, we met Gary's parents, Glyn and Janette, who hosted a wonderful evening and shared with us their stories and reflections about his life. After dinner, we all sat down in the drawing room for 'sweetmeats', the odd glass of brandy and the showing of 'A Sunday in Hell', the story of the 1976 Paris-Roubaix spring classic. This is regarded as possibly the best cycling film ever made and the sight of Eddy Merckx et al slogging over endless miles of brutal cobblestones certainly put our modestly heroic efforts into their proper context.

Hartwell House (by Heather S)

On day 2, after a leisurely morning and a stonking breakfast, the peleton set off from Hartwell House on the return journey - about 38 miles. We had little time to settle into a rhythm before facing a gruelling ascent into the mighty Chilterns - they might as well have been the Alps as far as some of us novices were concerned. The peleton rapidly disintegrated, but no matter. Blood, sweat and tears got us all up there one way or another. It was a long haul to lunch after the climbs and before we could eat, there was the points sprint into Mentmore to navigate, won by Gary Elliott. By this point we had lost Emma, Nina and Matt DJ on their bikes and Julia W , Suzie and Jackie in the broom wagon, who ended up taking bit of a detour and arrived at lunch almost an hour later than the rest of us. We lunched at the Stag, a gastro-pub in Mentmore co-owned by F1 driver Mark Webber. The highlight of the menu is the 'Mark Webber Pizza', created by the great man himself apparently. Multi-talented or what?

Lunch Day 2: two cycling guests joined us (by Clive B)

Lunch set us up nicely for the final leg back to the charming little village of Simpson, Julia's home, where we were treated to a champagne reception and an awards ceremony. Glyn made a short speech and Julia handed out three very superior crystal trophies, to Richard Golding for his performance in the mountains, to Matt Howells and Matt Derbyshire for the sprints and to Emma for 'heroic effort'. Emma had been suffering badly from dizziness throughout the 2 days and put in a typically steely performance to reach the finishing line.

Arrival at Simpson (by Jonathan D)

Thus ended the Tour de Buckingham: conceived by the late, great, Gary Nelmes, executed in glorious style by Julia Brennan and many others. I think Gary would be proud of us; we will honour his name in many other ways during the months and years ahead.

Jonathan Davies

Thursday, 17 September 2009

More musettes - and what's to go in them!

Sue and I sewed on the handles last night - for 15 of the bags. Only a few more to go! Then it's the fun part: ironing on the transfers. Hope it works.

Bag making has been fun and it's been great to do crafty things together, but we have been a bit rushed. We do wish we'd had more time to finish the seams properly and make a more durable product. It has, however, been really good practice for me (as I'm inexperienced with using a machine) and everyone will have a memento of the weekend.

Meanwhile, the Oxford crew - Whippers and Verity - have been busily planning and baking delicious treats to put in the bags for lunch on Day 1. I won't tell you what's in there so you'll be surprised, but the food will be delicious, compact, edible while cycling and energy-rich.

Mountain stages and sprints

Richard G has been fundamental to the planning of the weekend. It is he who has valiantly tested out the route (twice) and has planned the mountain stages and sprints. We would have been lost without him.

Here are the sprint details:

Day 1:
Hill Climb 1
Marston or Oving Hill (leads into Oving) - Just past North Marston
Start of Climb: Roads bends to the left to signal start of climb
End of Climb: 1st House on right in Oving

Hill Climb 2
Waddesdon Hill
Start of Climb: A couple of 100m after crossing A41
End of Climb: Just before 2nd house is passed (at crossroads)

Day 2:
After turning left off of Long Marston Road towards Mentmore. Sprint to Entrace to Mentmore Golf Club (on left)

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Making musettes: 20 is quite a lot actually

Last night Beccy and I started the musette production in earnest. Wine and B's delicious veggie moussaka distracted us for at least an hour, but then we began feverishly pressing, cutting straps and whirring away on two sewing machines. I did the top hems (bumpily - MUST try not to force the fabric through) and Beccy sewed up the pouches on Sue's delightfully heavy and seventiesy machine. It felt like a real production line!

Two of the world's best inventions?:
the bicycle and the sewing machine

We sewed late into the night, chatting loudly over the machine noise, and criticising our workmanship. By the end of the evening we had ten pouches made, and five top hems sewn. Tonight it's me and Sue on the remainder of the pouches, and straps!

Gary D. Nelmes Tour of Buckinghamshire: itinery

Day 1
· We will meet at 10 am.
· You will then load your overnight bags and day packs onto the broom wagon, pick up your ‘race’ numbers and listen to a route and safety briefing from one of the team leaders.
· The time trial of the team leaders (and anyone else who would like a go!) will then commence. This will be three circuits (of just over half a mile).

· We will then begin Day 1 of cycling. We will generally be cycling in one peleton (group) but there is likely to be one optional sprint, and one optional hill stage.
· Lunch will be a brief stop, where you will be given your musettes (feed bags) which you will be able to carry with you. If you think you will want anything extra to eat, please bring it in your day packs.
· We will aim to be at the hotel at about 4 pm. You’ll then have time to settle in and relax in the spa.
· Pre-dinner drinks will be at 7pm and dinner at 8pm in the Octagon room. Dinner will be a black-tie (or close approximation thereof) affair.
· After dinner there will be a showing of ‘A Sunday in Hell’ in the drawing room.

Day 2
· Breakfast will be available from 8am.
· We will start Day 2 of cycling around 11 am.
· There will be one sprint – to a pub where we will stop for lunch.
· We will finish in Simpson – and here we will have a champagne reception and prize-giving.

Monday, 14 September 2009


Last Sunday we went for a 26-mile training ride, led by Mr D-J, to prepare ourselves for the Tour. This was the last of several he had very kindly led, to help familiarise those less used to road bikes with the feel of the machines. I've recently aquired a lovely Trek 1.2 myself, and I can confirm that they are definitely much more flighty than a standard bike. Although that doesn't mean a lot - my standard is that frisky-wheeled classic of British engineering, a Brompton!

There was definitely an Autumn chill in the air, and a very stiff wind, but, forearmed with the Nelmes Guide to Gear Use, everyone coped admirably with the distance. I'm sure it added to the reserve of stamina built up in the legs over the past few weeks.

Nelmes' Guide to Gear Use
Halfway we had a reviving tea break at the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne (must take Hannah the Hat Lady some day). We ate sugary pies and marvelled at the fact that the small tea room had at least 40 lights in the ceiling. The route was very pleasant and took in a lot of carefully chosen quiet lanes, a couple of reasonable hills, and some lovely villages. Sorry I can't remember all of their names ... think I must have been doing some breathing at the time.

After the ride I handed out some spare cycling tops (to match the riders' bikes of course) and issued a strong warning about cycling attire. Gary was very sensitive to cycling aesthetics and no clothing of 'the debased form' will be tolerated! I'm hoping everyone will dare to ease themselves into lycra or close-fitting wool, top and bottom.

Making musettes

On Friday Sue, Beccy and I had a prototype musette-making evening at my house. Beccy had been very busy researching traditional musette dimensions, making up a paper pattern and sourcing and pricing up calico and wide twill tape from John Lewis and eBay. She arrived with sewing box, gushing (ha) about her lovely new plumber who had saved her from the misery of dripping soil pipes (plumber loving happens so fast)!

Beccy and Sue set to work bravely making the first cut in the calico, ironing the seams and running up the bag pouch to test the design - which turned out to be very simple yet effective. The only debate was how to create the fastening.
Velcro? Press stud? Button with loop?
After hand-sewing on the velcro (which took some time) and realising that trying to open velcro with one hand while cyling could be perilous, we decided on studs.
Within about half an hour we had a bag. We tested it on this lovely model, and loaded it up with bananas and dried fruit. We think it works! All it needs now is the iron-on logo.

This week we will be making about 20 bags for all the cyclists according to the pattern. We reckon we can create all the bag pouches in one evening (with two sewing machines running) and then sew on all the straps another.

It was such a cosy and pleasant evening. My cottagey house lent itself to the activity and we enjoyed putting together the bags, tidying our sewing boxes and having dinner while talking about future projects and how we'd learned about sewing - from mothers or grandmothers. It seems lots of our friends can sew. Personally, I'm just learning, as my Mum was more of a knitter than a sewer. But my second term of 'beginners machine sewing' starts tonight - which I'm really looking forward to. Strange to think that the craft of sewing is now a hobby for us when it would have been a career for many women in the past. In my village, apparently, a lot of the women were lacemakers.

Monday, 7 September 2009

We have a logo!

Designed by Paul H, our logo is a beauty - in Bianchi celeste green. Below we have the mono version.

The plan is to iron the colour version of the logo on to the musettes using iron-on transfer paper - which is a pretty ingenious invention. I've ordered far too much, but I think it could have other pleasing uses ...

The next training ride for the MK people is tomorrow evening - Emma, Nina, Matt D-J and I will do about 13 miles around the North of MK. Meanwhile, Laura in Oxford and Jonathan in Leamington have reported doing some testing, long weekend rides.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Tour of Buckinghamshire

Well, we lost our Directeur Sportif, Gary Nelmes, from whose creative and sparkling brain the glamorous 'Tour of Buckinghamshire' sprung. As incredible as it seems, he did indeed spend his last days in the mountains wearing Mallory's recreation jumper. I am so proud of him in every way and he is always in my mind.

Gary had hundreds of ideas, but his last fleshed-out plan was the ToB - intended to introduce as many of his friends as possible to the excitement and aesthetic of cycle racing. Either that or to get us to 'improve' physically and morally, and turn us into lycra-wearing Nelmsian clones. I was never quite sure.

So, although it could never be the same without him, we felt the tour should still go ahead, as close as possible to his plans from his Ludicrous Exploits blog and from backs of envelopes and on various scraps and scribbles found about my house.

Here is an update on progress.

Richard G - to whom I am so grateful - graciously braved the new September gales yesterday and tested out the original 93-mile route. Richard - streamlined cycling machine that he is - tested the whole lot in one day, and with comments from the other team leaders came up with:

Day 1

Day 2

As you'll see, this now adds up to 69 miles. After some discussion, and some carefully timed training rides led by Matt snr, we feel that cutting down the mileage is necessary. Gary was keen for the ride to suit all, and a shorter route would allow us to enjoy a couple of stops for stimulants, to get in before nightfall and to enjoy the spa of our ville d'etape - which is now booked. Those who need more of a challenge will be able to test their mettle on the time trial, the 'mountain' stages, and the intermediate sprints. I think he'd approve of the modification.

Further progress

Richard J has now booked the broom wagon, and Jackie our driver is currently in her lab working out the physics of how to duck tape an actual broom to the back. Visual gag!

All Butter Flapjack has posted us a DVD of the film A Sunday in Hell (to be shown after the grand dinner in the evening of Day 1).

Plans are afoot for the creation of 'musettes' at a craft club evening chez moi with the aid of seamstresses Sue and Beccy.

I have read things out and Emma has written things down in neat handwriting. We think we know what we need to do.

So things are shaping up. Some further discussion of the route with the team leaders is necessary - but I'm pleased with progress. Everyone seems genuinely keen to be involved and to be looking forward to celebrating the life of Gary in serious style.