The Great Orchid Hunt

 

17952600_10156068533669832_8561523728772364890_n

The first early purple orchid of 2017

Sometimes just going for a run isn’t enough and an excuse to go looking for one of Britain’s rare and gorgeous wild orchids gives me a reason for getting out of the door.  They don’t flower for long and some are so rare, the chance to see them is really special.   I wrote an article about my county’s orchids for a friend’s parish magazine, reproduced below. Just three more species to find this year.

Jim orchid article

Advertisements

Across Wales with Jack

“I just thought you might be crazy enough to consider it,” said my friend Jo on the phone when she called to tell me her latest cunning plan. And it seems I was.

14370415_10155279285844832_6236933241668855607_n

The idea was to ride across Wales from the Shropshire border to the Welsh coast and back over the course of a fortnight in September 2016 on our own horses. My first reaction was “Wow, what an amazing idea,” swiftly followed by, “But impossible.”

My horse may be a pure bred Welsh section D with detailed pedigree going back several generations, but as an Essex born and bred version, I think his longest journey in a horsebox alone was when I bought him four years ago.  He’s also not the bravest of horses, quite capable of spooking at a shadow or leaf in the wrong place, so taking him to face such a vast unknown landscape seemed daunting to say the least.

Two things really made me go for it. One was my lovely husband suggesting that he would come with me to drive Jack there, then come and pick me up on the Welsh coast so I could go one way. The other was the thought that I wouldn’t get offers like this very often, and I would always regret not giving it a go.  Part of my “get on with living for today” approach to life.

Buying saddle bags was the first step to properly committing to the adventure and then starting to train Jack to travel alone came next. One little thing that seemed to make huge difference was buying some kids’ mirrors in IKEA to stick up inside the horse box so he could see some horsey companionship (I never said he was the brightest horse!). Much to my relief,  when it came to the big day, he travelled calmly for the full 4 hours plus of journey to Powys.

The route had been planned out by our host for the first night (Medina at Brandy House Farm), with a variety of bunkhouses, bed and breakfasts and traditional pubs (for ‘traditional’ read “a throwback to the 1980s and looking distinctly shabby for it”), but most importantly with paddocks for the horses.

14264813_10155211679929554_8308941301970513076_n

Me, Maike and Jo ready to go

Monday morning came, and after much fuss over kit and tack, we set off to lead our little group of three horses up the first steep hill. Needless to say, as we were now in Wales, there were lots of sheep and Jack did not know which way to spook first. While I was busy trying to hang onto him, I failed to notice that Jo’s mare Freckles had decided that she needed to put Jack in his place though it was my knee that got in the way.  Expedition nearly done for before it started, but luckily only colourful bruising.

I pride myself on being a reasonably competent navigator, but reading a map attached to your horse’s saddle is not so easy. Route instructions were a bit haphazard too – not terribly helpful in terms of distance between turnings or catch features in parts. And for good measure, Welsh hill farmers seem to like removing all traces of way markers on bridle paths and right of way.  Luckily for us Jo’s husband had volunteered to be support crew so I felt much better about being in the right place when I could see him waiting at our first road crossing.  Just in time to watch Jack’s terror at the idea of passing close by a herd of curious bullocks.

Heading up on some quite wild fells next and rainwear came out.  I decided I needed to get my head round actually navigating, not helped by small tracks turning into what looked almost like motorways since the map had been produced.

14322722_10155269143144832_4369975587621348002_n

Getting anywhere fast proved to be impossible – very few gates were in good enough condition to be opened from horseback – even with a superstar like Pedro.  Another moan about Welsh farmers who seems to feel that rusty collapsed hinges, cow chains and bailing twine are suitable for public rights of way. So each gate we met took up to ten minutes to negotiate – one particularly bad bit had about a dozen gates in couple of miles and deeply rutted, waterlogged tracks (it turned out it had been used for an off-road motorbike event).

I rather wished I’d put on my GPS tracker on my watch as our planned 19 miles did seem to go on and on towards the end, but eventually the bunkhouse that was our stop came into sight. Jack doesn’t normally get feed at this time of year but after so many miles I think he deserved it.  Our hosts here were very welcoming, cooking up a large pan of pasta accompanied by a nice bottle of Vacqueyras that I had sneaked into my luggage – muscle relaxant of course!

 

Day two took us along parts of Glyndwr’s way, and our host from the bunkhouse was keen to show us a bridlepath that had just been re-opened. “A bit boggy in places,” was his slight understatement.

14322359_10155272065904832_6397588301837135474_n

I was definitely by now picking up a new level of admiration for the sort of tracks that my rather pampered horse could tackle, though I did have to check he had kept all his horseshoes on. Having shown us some lovely scenic forest tracks, our host then pointed to a looming thundercloud and announced he was off home. We stopped to put on heavy duty rain gear  and it turned out that trying to get into my brand new chaps was an interesting challenge while the lightening and thunder got closer. Hopping back on, I discovered the downside of pinching my daughter’s lovely fluffy seat-saver. It may absorb shocks, but also soaks up rain like a sponge so dry legs and wet butt was the order of the day.

14368864_10155272065894832_1999018552569314580_n

Lunch stop in the pouring rain – we had ridden over those hills behind Jack

Fords, bogs and forest tracks took us on across the Welsh countryside in a part of the country where sheep and even red kites outnumbered people.

Jack wasn’t keen on this narrow bridge but eventually realised that the alternative was either sinking into bog to become mummified as “Peat Jack”, or being left behind by his new friends.

14322311_10153912296161149_5382342599525686491_n

The next huge challenge of the day was a very steep hill, fallen tree and ancient track that headed into someone’s overgrown back garden. Can’t say I enjoyed this bit and realised that I have some horse training to do as Jack doesn’t like getting his feet wet – he hasn’t worked out that hooves are waterproof. Then it was supposedly onto a “way-marked grassy bridleway” straight in front of us.  Welsh farmers doing their worst again and we spent sometime looking for the non-existent way marks.  Eventually I realised I actually needed to read the map and match the landscape to the contours and we were back on track.

14368806_10155272065899832_6034674338160122209_n

The Bluebell pub was our overnight stop, and thankfully support crew (aka Jo’s husband) had checked out where the field was, though the sheep peacefully munching in it seemed surprised by our arrival.  Cold wet horses got rainsheets on tonight after parking up in the pub car park.

14316996_10155272073174832_4767496037954743791_n

And we were grateful for a reviving pint of refreshment. Sadly the pub was clearly suffering from tough times – holed sheets and no shampoo or mugs in my room, though luckily a long day in the fresh air overcomes a lot.

In spite of so much grass Jack was still happy to see me next morning.

14291656_10155279268129832_5649048234060613200_n

Day three took us back out on an eerily misty morning, past yesterday’s lake and on into seriously boggy woodland, though as Jo pointed out the trip was called “Your Horse Adventure”, not “Your Horse Walk in the Park.”

But also some beautiful farmland – until we headed across another soggy field complete with bull guarding a couple of girlfriends.  Jack is not good if large quadrupeds head in his direction, but luckily Pedro the superstar came to our rescue, chasing off the bull like a proper cow horse, though that didn’t stop Jack panicking about  being bogged down, having to squeeze past a narrow gate, and that bull.  Amazingly we survived and had a relatively calm walk leading the horses down the hill.  I hopped back on to face the next herds of cows and sheep, though by now only black sheep were worthy of note in Jack’s mind, and thankfully these cows stayed put.

I hadn’t accounted for meeting Oscar, a donkey with attitude.  Donkeys are just the wrong side of the uncanny valley for many horses – like a horse but not quite.  And actually I thought Jack could cope with donkeys as he lives next door to a small herd – who sound like the souls of the damned when they set off in chorus. I’ve never heard a horse whimpering in terror – till this point – and the donkey seemed to know exactly who to menace, chasing us along hedge after hedge. Then just for good measure there was a narrow bridge over a river with a gate at each end – where Jo decided a photo shoot might be in order, though quickly realised that getting out of the way was a better plan.

Very grateful to see support crew for a break soon after this!

The amazing Pedro, Jack saying thank you (I think), and Freckles showing off gate skills.

Somehow everything seemed less scary after this incident-filled hour, and after reviving tea and cakes we set off again, with the sun making a welcome appearance.

14333610_10155279285839832_8090839901014051799_n

The day’s riding eventually led us through some just stunning scenery into Hafren forest heading for an overnight stop at the incredibly peaceful Cwmbiga. This amazing place has only had 8 owners since the thirteenth century and it was fascinating to read the history of the cottage. It seems to be a place that would repay visiting with more time to explore as there are pine martens, otters and ospreys in the area.

Happy pony with lots of grass

It’s so peaceful here, I had to use an old-fashioned landline to phone home, but somehow being cut-off from the modern world is surprisingly relaxing. A warm welcome, tasty meal and reviving bottle of cider slipped down all too quickly.

Another misty morning and we set off up a welcoming forest track, chatting away and enjoying the scenery … and failing to read our route instructions. Until after couple of miles we met a track junction that just didn’t fit.  I hate forest nav because there are always so many tracks that are not rights of way, and therefore not on the map,  but I’ll hold my hands up and admit the screw-up was totally my fault for not actually trying to read the map either.  GPS back-up on Jo’s phone (her husband had pre-programmed the route maps in) showed us we were way off course, so back we went. It was a very scenic detour though!

You can see why we weren’t concentrating on reading instructions

And this is where we should have gone.

Then it was much more open country with fantastic sweeping views but some very steep and stony tracks which meant quite bit of walking to take the weight of the ponies’ battered hooves.

Jack looking back after a scare with too many motorbikes – he coped with the first two but four was two too many.

And cake and grass stop outside a church.

14390702_10155287681414832_2275386010392066407_n

Our destination for night 4 was a farmhouse B&B called Brynllwydwyn, but as we got close  we suffered our only real sense of humour failure. I had put my GPS tracker on this day and our supposedly 15 mile day was more like 17 plus so no wonder we were all little tired. Instructions to keep a line of trees on our left made no sense faced with three lines of trees and no obvious route markings (and as two of us have multiple biology degrees a description of the type of tree would have helped).  Eventually Jo spotted a horse she  thought she recognised so we just headed down the hill and kept our fingers crossed. Sense of humour soon recovered as our destination came into view. Ponies always get fed, washed down and turned out first, but tea and homemade scones were then very welcome.

In spite of many hours in the saddle, and many more leading up or down steep hills, and even more feeding, grooming and prepping horses, I don’t reckon I lost any weight this trip. Our host here laid on a very tasty three course meal of broccoli and blue cheese soup, fish baked with spinach and then a rich chocolate mocha dessert, thanks to Mary Berry’s words of wisdom. Light it wasn’t, though funnily enough it all disappeared.

Day five began with trek back up the steep hill and back onto Glyndwr’s Way. All useful hill training for my upcoming mountain marathon that I actually hadn’t really done any proper preparation for at all.

14322378_1279242702087788_8457471869435157189_nJack likes making friends, even if they are a lot smaller than him. Photo from Brynllwydwyn.

There was a shorter option, without the hill, but this was my last day on the trail so I was keen to make the most of it and the description promised spectacular scenery. And so it proved. We even risked some cantering today now the horses were used to each other and probably too tired to try and race off.

14317396_10155287684619832_4850053252568047158_n

We got our first glimpse of the sea in the distance too. Jack had seemed pretty tired at the end of day three but his fitness seemed to pick up again quite quickly after that.  Lots of stony tracks on day 5 were not great for his feet though.  He only wears front shoes so his back feet should be fairly tough, but we don’t have to cover much hard ground at home and the stones definitely took their toll. I’m pretty sure he would have been fit enough to do the return leg but his back hooves wouldn’t have coped. Next time I do something like this it will be horse shoes all round.

Before this trip, I would have insisted that tracks like this weren’t passable by horse.  

We had got the hang of navigating more or less by now, though cavalier attitudes to signposts caused a couple of minor hesitations. And it was another longer than advertised day according to my GPS, though to be honest the long days weren’t a problem – not even a little bit saddle-sore.  Finally our destination and the end of my ride came into view along with so much grass I think Jack thought all his birthdays had come at once.

14355158_10155287687784832_7421181550112698365_n

Jo and I had been craving gin and tonic for several nights by now. Strictly muscle relaxant of course! 

14390679_10155287686524832_1583688304821532381_n

Happy and nicely muscled up horse, enjoying hard earned grassy feast. He wasn’t pleased to be separated from his new friends to go home.

I’m so glad I overcame my fears and went on this amazing adventure. I learned so much about what Jack and I could do together, as well as catching up with a very long-standing friendship and making a new friend in the ever-cheerful Maike. And huge thanks to my riding companions for putting up with my pony’s quirks and fears, and mine too.

Extraordinary women? Not me, I’m just ordinary

An interview I did for a Romanian journalist who has started a blog about “extraordinary women and has kindly picked me to feature.

Caroline Gilby, Master of Wine, englezoaica îndrăgostită de vinuri și de viață

Turning to the “Lite” side

A full-on mountain marathon can be just little bit on the hardcore side, and much as I enjoy them, there’s definitely a certain appeal in a “lite” version that includes returning to your car and tent, along with catering and a bar, at the mid-way overnight camp. This meant a much shorter list of obligatory kit – no need to lug tent, sleeping bags and cooking gear around, all just about squeezable into a 5 litre race vest.

OMM is the organisation behind one of the toughest mountain marathons of the lot – deliberately held at the end of October so the weather adds an extra challenge and I must say an event that doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest.  But when they announced a series of OMM lite events, based around footpaths and trails, and with trappings of civilisation, it seemed like a great idea to encourage a slightly less hardcore friend to join me in the Chilterns in mid July.

What I hadn’t told her was how far we might travel, given that the Chilterns aren’t exactly Britain’s highest mountains, and as we would be on tracks and roads rather than bog trotting, we might actually run a bit. It was quite different navigating to being on the fells, very much close scale stuff and if you didn’t keep finger on the map at all times, it was easy to miss turn.  As we did once running down a lovely wide track and talking about sweet potato recipes.  Running back up again was not so much fun but at least we hadn’t got too far off route. It was a hot day and luckily the cafe at an airfield filled up our water bottles.  My lowest point was in the heat of the day when a hopeful sign pointed towards a village shop and the thought of a cooling ice-cream sounded like ambrosia. Sadly it was closed and we had to repass couple of old blokes who hadn’t taken the stupid retail detour.

Navigation was largely spot on and  and route choice sound – thanks to my friend who talked me out of one more ambitious checkpoint.  My biggest mistake happened heading towards the finish.  I’d mentioned several times how tricky woodland nav can be as there are so often dog walkers’ paths that aren’t on the map, but I ignored my own advice and got suckered into following the crowds along a wider track. On a rough compass bearing, it was heading almost in the right direction but I had a gut feel that it wasn’t right. There comes point where it’s better to carry on until you reach a landscape feature you recognise rather than go back and so it proved. And nice when you meet other lost runners to be able to point to exactly where you are on the map – and be right.  By this point I’d dragged my friend several miles further than she had ever run in her entire life, covering about 20 miles that day and we finished with a carefully judged ( or perhaps slightly to tight for comfort) 3 minutes to spare.  And it seems, I didn’t make her cry at al.

Day two looked set to be rather on the warm side and as we were up and organised we decided to see if we could start early to get some miles done before it got too hot. This proved to be a really good plan and couple of handy pubs along the way let us top up essential water. We ended up doing more running on roads than I was expecting but in places, this was the judicious choice to avoid being scratched and stung on overgrown paths.  No nav errors at all this time and a few more minutes to spare at the finish, though not enough to get to another checkpoint. And still no tears, even though we’d done about 36 miles in total over the two days.

Enough points for second female team, first female vet team and 19th out of 57 teams overall.  So not a bad weekend out – I know how to treat my friends to a top notch girly weekend away!

13775780_10155079175414832_2712444676798136656_n

Marathon thoughts

Well, it’s been a few months since I dragged myself round Milton Keynes marathon and I needed a bit of distance before I could put down some sensible thoughts.

DSC_0534

After my disappointing (to me at least) 4 hour run on the tough Marathon du Medoc course in September, I honestly thought that on a faster road course it would be easy to knock ten minutes off my time. I also thought that going to a really local race would mean sleeping at home and eating my own food without the extra stress of travelling and so far I’ve always enjoyed running round Milton Keynes.  My PB and age group best half marathons were all run on courses round the city, and the organisers  claimed that MK was now one of the UK’s flattest and fastest marathons so all sounded good.

Training proved to be a lot tougher than I expected.  I was continually ill from December onwards with one virus after another, even losing my sense of smell for several distressing weeks ( I taste wine for living and no sense of smell is disastrous when you depend on it for your job).  My first couple of 18 to 20 milers were tough but it looked as though I was turning things round. Then another virus and lots of travel knocked me back again.  My last 20 miler was due to be Oakley 20 – which I wrote about here.  Though in spite of my disappointment in myself, it turned out I was second in my age group in the county championships.

13427956_10154988002519832_1461149091892068090_n

Anyway back to Milton Keynes.  It started off steadily heading up into the city centre, where there was lots of crowd support.  Pace was OK if a little bit pedestrian but on target and this time I remembered to keep up my energy levels with regular shot bloks and gels (which I had felt was a problem in Bordeaux). But by half way, it was clear that the wheels were coming off.  Fast and flat it wasn’t – no big hills, but lots of little ups and downs and twists and turns ( my watch said I’d run at least an extra half mile over the course)

13445726_10209933123871810_7290616934847642235_n

Then it became matter of simply hanging on and putting one foot in front of the other until I headed into the Mk Dons stadium where the race finished.  And another frustratingly just outside 4 hour finish, but in the end there wasn’t anything I could do to save those 13 seconds.

The idea behind tackling another marathon was my rather rashly conceived  idea of chasing all the club records for my age group, not least because I hold all the shorter distance records after my miracle year running last year and based on my shorter race times, a club record should be doable. But it turns out I’m probably a better shorter distance runner than long one – even if I like the long slow ultra plod style of running.  The only races I have ever run elite times for are 5km and 5 miles and it drops off as distances get longer.

Anyway, that’s it for road marathons.  The training is too hard, as is the race itself.  Most importantly I stopped enjoying running while I was training and normally running makes me happy.  I’ve gone back to running that I enjoy – going for a gossip, or to look at flowers or butterflies, or simply to clear my head, and that’s much better place to be.

Flower of the day – multiple tulips

Flower of the day. Tulipa hageri Little Beauty. PS if you are getting bored of these unfollow me now – I can keep this up for a very long time.

12963599_10154817408729832_2963207430149354213_n

There were quite a few tulip pictures, partly because I adore them and I think I get the 17th century mania for tulips. And and partly because I bought an end of season  job lot of bulb bargains so mostly no idea of the cultivar.