I kept reading about taking a micro adventure and had little chance to do it. The chance arrived. After a long day in the hills I looked at the tent in the boot of the car, then at the rain-less sky, then at the tent, then at the sky. I closed the boot. With rucksack hefted on my back and my walking stick in hand, I headed away from the campsite and away from the tent. As I left, an unknown camper spotted me heading off at a strange hour and waved, “Have a good adventure.”

Down the road, past the river. Through the hazel coppice, into the forest. I paused at the usual spot; the three thousand five hundred year old burial mound. Could I share the forest tonight? I sometimes imagine what this man’s life must have been like. In my mind he begins as a warrior hero figure reinforced by movie tropes. Then I settled upon the reality that he was probably just like everybody else. The same desires, fears and anxieties. The same need to find purpose and shepherd our children; prepare them in any way we can and hope that they are the best of us. I have visited this mound often and sometimes imagine the ghost of this man coming back for a chat. Think of the wonders I could tell him; what we have created and achieved. Although, if he asked how we have looked after the earth since he left it a few thousand years ago I might have to change the subject as quickly and subtly as possible.

Earlier I had chosen a spot to sleep. The land rose away from the path and into the dark forest before dropping a little, plateauing for a few meters, and then plunging down steeply into the river below. I found a flat area and made a mental note of a characteristic tree on the path, one that I could find again when I returned in the evening.

When I did return and find the characteristic tree I walked into the forest and found something I did not spot on my initial recce. A plastic spike with an insect trap and a pit-fall trap below it. Someone must be sampling insects and wanted it not to be found. Yet they wrestled with the dilemma of not being able to find it themselves. So, they placed it on the plateau just beyond the high point in line with the characteristic tree! We all think the same way; me, the mystery naturalist and all of us. We all follow the patterns of thought in our heads.

The gas stove was fired up while I cleared a patch of forest floor for my sleeping bag and bivvy bag. A bivvy bag is essentially a rain coat for a sleeping bag. Not a complete waterproof barrier, but enough to survive a little rain if it arrived. Once the cup of tea was ready I settled down with a good book.

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Quite a while later the darkness was slowly pouring in and I decided to try and let the tide of sleep take me into the night. Midge flies bit as I texted the lovely Sharon my eight figure grid reference just in case I was devoured by earwigs and millipedes and she had to try and find my body. Days later I found only one small deer tick feeding from my arm; a small price to pay for a micro adventure.

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I woke up a few times. I woke to note that the farmer across the small valley had finally stopped lifting the hay at 1 A.M. On one occasion I woke to fight the irrational urge to flick on my head torch and look behind me and check if nothing sinister was in the forest. The logic in my head was that there could be nothing worse than a fox or a badger who was more afraid of me than I was of them. The other logical path was that if it was a scary man-eating forest monster from the depths of hell, it was not going to be put off by my head torch, so I should just stay still and try to go to sleep anyway.

The rain began at 6 A.M. If I had been in a tent, the sound of rain would have forced me deeper into my sleeping bag and further from embracing the reality of the world outside. The opposite was true in a bivvy bag so close to the morning. Get up, get a pot of coffee on the gas cooker, get warmed up and get on with the day and next adventure.

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After the service we headed into the hall for biscuits and juice. The little people rushed for the biscuits.  As it was so close to lunchtime only two biscuits each were permitted. And, the little man has a ritual of getting a biscuit for him, and a biscuit for me. Then he returns for his second biscuit later. Today I had to take a detour to talk to someone and told them to head on in. I was gone for only a few minutes and it was obvious that something major had happened. The little man was in floods of tears and inconsolable. The lovely Sharon explained; he had accidentally eaten my biscuit. My heart fell apart. Do I need to point out that it was not because my biscuit was gone? He was standing there waiting and simply got lost in the moment. One biscuit gone. Oh look, there is biscuit number two. The lovely Sharon and I tried to calm him down and reassure him that there are plenty of biscuits. He began to breathe more smoothly again and seemed placated by the idea of a biscuit mission. The lovely Sharon walked him across the hall with purpose, then they walked back with him in pieces, sobbing and inconsolable. Apparently there were no chocolate biscuits left and the original one he chose for me was a chocolate biscuit. This was a roller-coaster of emotions for the both of us.

 

I sat down with him on the floor at the edge of the hall and held him as we watched his siblings running and screaming, oblivious to the biscuit saga.

 

Calmer now, he said he was thirsty.  We walked back across the hall and got a cup of orange juice each. While there, he was presented with a plate and asked if he wanted a biscuit. He looked at me with a question in his eyes. He had done the maths; his biscuit and mine so close to lunch. I nodded, of course he could have another biscuit. Then, with one swift motion lacking any hint of thought or hesitation, he grabbed a biscuit and snapped it in two. He handed me half and  my heart fell apart again.

I suppose it widens our experiences if we try something new.  With this character building in mind I decided to try something old; tree tapping. Collecting the sap of particular trees at Spring time is apparently something that humans have been doing for quite a while.

There was a time, not so long ago, when I did not know the names of the trees.  Then I  made a determined effort to try and be able to identify trees and plants.  It was a long process and I feel like I have only just begun with respect to plants. The trees seemed easier to commit to memory. Then one tree started to stand out as a favourite.  Not the Oak or the Beech; the Birch won my heart.  Its shape, its bark, and even the sound as the wind blows through the leaves. I think it was in an interview that Ray Mears once said that he could identify many of the Native trees just by the sound of the wind through them.  I adore the birch so much that I cut down a fair sized horse chestnut as it was too close to a younger birch. It was bullying the birch and adding the chestnut to the wood pile gave the tree space to simply be itself; be a beautiful birch.

Tapping a birch tree is something that I have been tempted to do for a while.  The window of time for tapping is narrow; only about two weeks.  I have sometimes wistfully looked at birch trees well outside from this critical time. Strangely, the thought of tree tapping never enters my head at the appropriate moment.  Until now.

I stabbed the tree with my knife and drops of clear birch tears formed on the blade.  I collected my equipment; hose, bottle, string and drill.  Three feet from the ground, and at an upward angle, I drilled a one and a half inch hole into my favourite birch tree.  Straight away the sap began to drip out and I plugged the hole with the hose.  That’s it. It seemed comically ridiculous to make a hole in a tree and get a drink out of it.  I collected a small amount  and proudly presented it to the lovely Sharon to share the first tasting. She looked at me quizzically. No, suspiciously. It was clear she had a lack of trust in me and my botanical identification skills. I tasted it myself, this rejuvenating tonic from nature and fortified with forest spring, life itself unfolding.  And it tasted…..of water with a hint of something strange.  No sweetness at all. Was it really a birch?  Had I drunk the poisonous sap of some strange tree?  Doubt dripped into my mind. No, my favourite tree cannot be a lie, it would never do that to me.

Later research revealed that some foragers do admit that the sap tastes pretty much like water with a hint of “earthiness”. The plan, if I collect enough, is to boil it down to make a syrup for pancakes.  I may have to cheat a little by adding sugar. It’s a bit of effort, and it may end up re-purposed on the compost heap, but I think it’s important to try new things.

The bad news; the doctor says I have, most likely, broken a rib (or ribs). He did say there is a possibility that it might just be bruised and I would know for sure in about a week. If it is bruised then it will be better in a week. If broken; four weeks.

It was all because of the lack of sensible shoes. Snow was blanketed over solid ice. Flat leather shoes did a cartoon run on the ice, moving nowhere, before giving up.

The good news; now that a doctor has given his professional diagnosis I might get some sympathy from the lovely Sharon. It’s not real for her if I self diagnose. A doctor once told me that I have an overactive hypochondrial gland. He said it was not dangerous and not to google it as I would just be upset.

So, a broken rib/ribs it is. I can’t really complain as it is only painful if I laugh, sneeze or breathe.

The bread maker stopped working. Making bread has become a habit here now. Three or four times a week the machine would be loaded with flour, water, salt and yeast. By using the machine I am not fully cheating; it’s only used to knead the dough and heat it a little as it does its first rise.  I shape it by hand, let it rise again, and then use the regular oven to cook it (turned up to ‘can’t go any further’ on the temperature scale). The oven has been customised with a baking stone. To use a baking stone sounds a bit fancy, but it is actually a thick paving stone I cut down to size with an angle grinder and placed on the bottom shelf of the oven.  It is a permanent feature now as it is too heavy to move.

Of course, the bread machine  was a luxury item. It decided to stop kneading just before the third batch of dough needed for a family pizza night. The little people’s cousins were due to pour into the cottage that evening with laughter and noise. So much noise.

The loss has not been missed.  Kneading by hand has made me go back to a bread book for advice on the correct kneading techniques. I prefer the french kneading method. And inevitably, a few interesting bread ideas were only a few pages away.  An added bonus has been the enthusiasm of the little lady helping me make the dough. Anything that gets the little people involved in growing or making food seems wonderful. Although, the last time she helped me, involved keeping her eyes on the TV and occasionally punching the dough. Then with eyes still unwavering from the TV, the little lady added that the bread would be alright as she was helping

Then there is the silver lining of the aesthetics. The sight of the earthenware bowl sitting on the mantelpiece over the wood stove.  The living room seems to be the warmest place to encourage the yeast. And the smell of the dough after a sponge has been fermenting overnight. A sponge is all the water and yeast mixed with only a third of the flour and none of the salt. Made the evening before, it bubbles away and adds flavour to the bread. Kneading this by hand releases all kinds of sweet and strange smells.

So the failure of the old bread maker has forced me back to joys of proper bread making and brought it to the forefront of life here instead of whirring away in the corner of the kitchen. The mixer has been with us for so long that it was a little bit sad to decide to throw it out.  It sat forlorn for weeks until I made the move to unplug it and add it to the ‘take to the rubbish dump’ pile building in the garage. Just before I did, I futilely flicked the switch and hit start just in case. It sprang into life! What do I do now?

Darkness will fall quickly and there is much to be done.

Storm Ali brought down half a tree in my sister’s garden.  Soon after I appeared with a chainsaw and a trailer.  Now I must chop it all up and stack it to season.  It sounds like a chore, and it is, and it is not.  It is a delight to cut and chop in cool air and under a setting crescent moon.  Tonight I fitted a new chain to my saw.  The old chain had its teeth sharpened down to bits so small that they nearly crumbled away.  The new chain  tore through the wood effortlessly, and scarily. The chainsaw is dangerous.  Even more dangerous is the moment when I am cutting and I sense a grin on my face.  This should not be fun.  I quickly regain a sensible attitude and remind myself to be safe.

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After cutting and nailing a roof onto my makeshift pallet wood shelter; I begin chopping with the axe as the darkness falls.  Head torch on.  I keep chopping.

A while later the littlest man arrives to help with his own head torch illuminating his little window in the dark.  Chopping stops and the tidying begins.  We tidy up under a barrage of questions about every tool and what it does. After a while we wander into the garden and sit on the bench switching off our head torches.

“Can you see the stars?”

“Yes, and I see the moon.  There”

I quickly point out a moving star overhead. “Look, that’s a satellite way up in space.”

“Is it a shooting star?”

No.  I try to explain that we don’t see shooting stars very often. It fails to placate his disappointment and then I draw his attention to the stars of Cygnus.

“Those stars are in the shape of a giant swan flying across the whole sky.”

“Is there a Giraffe in the stars?”

I would love that to be the case.  More disappointment. We look at the stars and try to make out the colours.  Yellow, Orange, Red, Blue. His attention keeps being drawn to the bright ‘stars’ near the horizon close to the moon.  I really want to point out that they are both planets, but he is three years old and there is really no need to be pedantic.  Then with excitement he spots…

“Look at that blue star there!”

I’m sorry, I had to draw the line here;

“No, that’s a light at the end of the neighbour’s gate.”

“Is it bedtime now?”

“No, it’s just dark time.”

“No, daddy, it’s Autumn time. That’s why it is dark.”

I stand corrected.

 

 

 

 

 

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Picking apples is a difficult game to play.  Too early and they can be inedible.  Too late and they are left bruised on the ground with the wind laughing around you.  For weeks now I have been gently twisting them on their stalks to see how much they are stubbornly holding on, knowing that they can just decide to give up in the time of only a few days.  The other problem is that different trees are ripe at different times.  One tree, who’s name we do not know, drops its apples in late August.  I deliberately let the wind tell me when these are ready as it gives such a heavy crop.  Once I see a mess of windfalls on the ground I decide that in one week I will strip the tree. These are the apples of crumbles, chutneys and frozen puree cubes to be dropped into cooking porridge on cold winter mornings.  Some of these apples are simmering away in the cottage tonight in a tomato chutney.  I could say that the place smells of spiced vinegar, but that is not quite the truth; it screams of vinegar.  Monty Don’s book  tells me that it must simmer for an hour.  Our experience of getting a decent consistency with chutneys is to take whatever it says with a pinch of salt (or a tablespoon of salt).  Double the time in the book, then add another hour.

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Fork to Fork – By Monty and Sarah Don

It is to be windy soon.  Tonight, after homework was completed, I passed out colanders*  to the little people and we ventured out for the annual apple harvest.  The little man inevitably gravitated to the bold red apples of the ‘Discovery’ tree looking like it was straight out of a child’s drawing.  I headed for my favourite, the ‘Katy’ tree, with its small explosions of autumnal flavour.

*bugs fall through the holes.

The harvest from the Discovery was good, and this is a crucial tree.  The apples are sweet and red with a white flesh that is marbled with red anthocyanins that have migrated from the skin.  They look strange and taste fantastic if sliced thin with a drop of lemon juice  placed on each slice.  Hungry from a long day of school, the little man and the little lady will quickly disappear a plate of these slices if it is placed in front of them.  Sometimes I have to take my hand away quick if I am to keep my fingers.  Unfortunately the third hungry person, the littlest man, just looks at me and shakes his head; not a fan of apples.