Walking 1,000 miles in 2017 – not all in one go!

Last year, I did an epic sponsored swim but it was all over in March and then I lost a bit of exercise motivation.

On Christmas Day, I gave my mum the pedometer she asked for and said that she fancied doing a challenge to walk 1,000 miles in 2017. She showed me a magazine advert and I’ve decided to sign up to it and give it a go! http://www.livefortheoutdoors.com/walk1000miles .

I had an unusual but very pleasant New Year’s Eve this year, on a friend’s new canal boat on the River Lea in North London. We could see the fireworks on the Thames from afar and it was a magical evening. We needed to walk another guest back to the tube station after midnight, so some of my miles were done on the towpath (slightly wobbly from Prosecco) but it all counts. Even though it started chucking it down with rain on our towpath walk later in the afternoon, the canal towpath is a magical world. I saw coots diving close up from the window of the boat, Canada geese, swans, gulls, mallards and even cormorants – click on the article as it seems they are moving inland due to over fishing at sea. I’d never seen them so far inland before.

Messing around on the river was a great way to start the year, and I clocked up 4.46 miles.

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A Spot of Urban Birding

My January has been fairly quiet so far. Instead of crazy nights out and lots of live music, it’s mostly been about settling down to work and creativity, and catching up with friends by going on bracing walks in the parks and countryside around Sheffield.

I’ve been swimming a few times at my local pool, dodging dive-bombing kids and people ploughing up and down. There have been a few pleasant nights in the pub, but more often, I’ve been watching episodes of Dr Who while wrapped in a blanket on the sofa while finishing off the Christmas cake. Very rock ‘n’ roll! And finishing off all those Christmas treats has cancelled out all the calories burned by the brisk walks. But it’s been a happy time of making plans and trying to establish good routines.

I’ve set myself a goal of spending thirty minutes of the day at least working on my novel. It doesn’t sound a lot, and there have been days when I haven’t even been able to manage that, but since New Year, I finally feel that the end of the first draft of ‘Distortion’ is very close. Just a couple of chapters to go, and I’m starting to tie up a lot of the loose ends in the novel.

I think the secret is to write a little and often, doing it first where possible, rather than leaving it until everything else is done – including chores like cleaning the bathroom and sorting out laundry! And when it’s just not possible to do any writing, I’ve prioritised it the following day, rather than beating myself up for “failing”. As humans, we seem programmed to be “all or nothing” – just as many people seem to give up on being vegetarian after giving in to the temptation of eating one bacon sandwich, I wonder how many aspiring writers lose faith in themselves after setting themselves a much too ambitious routine?

If you’re trying to write something and you’re feeling uninspired, or worried that you’re going to churn out a load of crap, just set a timer, get on with it, and don’t worry. A first draft is supposed to be rubbish. But a crappy first draft is better than a blank page. It’s something to tinker and fiddle with until you’ve got it right. Those rough words on the page can generate brilliant new ideas. The main thing to concentrate on is whether the words you’ve written have got you from A-B in your story.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch in Ruskin Park

This morning, I set off on a micro-adventure: a journey of discovery in my local green space: Ruskin Park in Walkley, Sheffield. Amazingly, this park is only about as old as me, having been created following the slum-clearance of Victorian terraced houses. In that time, the park has grown several copses of fir, ash, alder, willow (there isn’t a stream, but the ground must be quite damp in places with those species), hazel and elder. The playground is very popular with local families, and there is even a zip-wire! At the opposite end of the park from my house is the Blake Hotel, refurbished several years ago following years of lying derelict. Now it’s one of Sheffield’s favourite pubs with its wide selection of real ales. Ruskin Park also had a cameo role in blockbuster film, The Full Monty!

It was such a lovely morning – much milder than the snowy, icy conditions we’ve had recently, and there was a real feeling of spring in the air. I wanted to get out into the park, rather than sitting in the house, looking down into my tiny garden. I’ve spotted plenty of wildlife there in the past, but I wanted to get some fresh air and look for some wildlife.

I had a great time in the park, exploring the woods and paths, dodging dog poo, avoiding patches of remaining ice and snow and getting my boots muddy! It was worth it though. The park is full of signs of spring: hazel catkins, daffodils starting to push their way through the grass, and some elders in a clearing were putting out their first leaves. This morning, urban sounds mingled with birdsong and church bells. In the Big Garden Birdwatch (you’re allowed to do your birdwatching in a park too), you have to record the largest number of each species of birds that you see at the same time. It doesn’t say anything about birds that you can hear but not see, so even though I heard a robin singing and house sparrows chirping from a bush, I couldn’t count them!

Here’s the full tally from my hour of bird-watching – the numbers indicating the biggest number of each bird I saw at any one time:

Blackbird: 1
Woodpigeon: 3
Chaffinch: 5
Bluetit: 3
Crow: 1
Long tailed tits: 5
Great tits: 2
Bullfinch: 1
Goldfinch: 6
Blackheaded gull: 1
Starling: 8
Magpie: 1
Wren: 1
Collared doves: 6

And finally, here’s the poem that I wrote about the experience!

Bird Watching in Ruskin Park

In dense hedges, sparrows chirp,
A blackbird skulks by the path.
Children jump in the playground –
Chimes ring under their feet.

Collared doves call, complaining.
In the copse, blue tits call and scold.
Police sirens, a helicopter’s whirr;
My face warm to the winter sun.

A small dog barks, starlings chirr,
Crow surveys the view, perched high –
Comments with a hoarse caw.
Woodpigeon naps in a fir tree.

Dirty snow litters the ground.
Treetop nests from last year, stark
Against blue sky and white clouds.
Cold nips my fingers but doesn’t bite.

Like a burbling fax machine modem,
A cacophony of goldfinches in gangs
Perch on twig-tops of hawthorn and willow.
Long-tailed tits dart, poised; scruffily puffed.

The church bells chime; a robin sings –
Elders in the clearing burst into leaf
Hazel catkins tremble in the breeze.
Mud underfoot: footballers shout.

Chaffinches, launched like bobbing missiles:
Wings folded, cross the snow-flecked pitch.
A small plane chugs over the city; high above
The daring stunt-fliers in the winter park.

December: A Manic Month of Mayhem! (Time for a rest?)

If I thought there were lots of gigs in November, the pace was set to continue, with lots more gigs and events – and that’s on top of Christmas and the New Year.

During the start of December, I was working hard, and gently starting to prepare for Christmas. But that was all about to change.

The 11th December had been in my diary for months. I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the Manic Street Preachers, playing The Holy Bible album in full. It feels unbelievable, but 2014 was the twentieth anniversary of this harrowing, critically acclaimed and essential album, an album influenced by angular post-punk, rather than the glam metal and grunge of the previous two albums. In the months after its release, lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared from a London hotel room, and has never been found.

Against all expectations, the Manic Street Preachers continued as a three-piece band, and they have now released twelve studio albums. They seemed busier and more productive than ever in 2014, having released Futurology in July. A tour to commemorate The Holy Bible was fervently wished for by fans, but it was unsure if the band would want to revisit old ground that invoked such painful memories of their friend’s disappearance.

But in late September, the band officially announced the tour dates, and my friend Louise managed to get tickets for the  Albert Hall in Manchester. On a stormy, sleety afternoon (I didn’t dare to cross the Pennines by the Snake Pass or the Woodhead) we drove to Manchester, arriving in good time at Louise’s boyfriend Peter’s flat, where he cooked a lovely meal, and I opened a bottle of red wine as a reward for battling the rain and the rush hour.

The gig was everything I hoped it would be. The Albert Hall was build in 1910 as a Wesleyan Chapel (very fitting when you think of the Methodist upbringings of the young Manic Street Preachers and the religious title of the album they were about to play in full. Ornate tiles, stained glass and cast-iron pillars added to the atmosphere of the venue. There was no support band, and we enjoyed the DJs and drank beer with mounting excitement.

The band appear onstage. The thing that hits me first is the empty space – the space where Richey Edwards used to perform – front left. This space has always been left, but as they launch into ‘Yes’, the first track from the album, about prostitution and exploitation, it feels incredibly stark. The stage is draped in camouflage netting, and James, Nicky and Sean are wearing their combat chic, just like in 1994. Nicky is all in black, his face half-hidden by outsize shades, and James Dean Bradfield wears a black sailor’s top. The songs are tight and powerful, and in such an intimate space, it becomes obvious what an outstanding guitarist James is, and also how hard he has to work: carrying the weight of these songs about human suffering and cruelty. It was brilliant to experience The Holy Bible being performed live, but the gig went far too fast to take in.

After all the emotional intensity, the Manics then delivered a brilliant second set with songs from the rest of their career. A particular highlight for me was Dreaming a City (Hughesovka) from Futurology, really allowing James’ guitar heroics full reign. The Manics ended with their traditional closing number A Design for Life, before we were kicked out into the pouring rain. It had been an amazing night!

The next day, I was doing it all again, this time seeing another of my all-time favourite bands, Gogol Bordello at the O2 in Sheffield, with my friend Kirsty, her husband Mark and old uni friend Katy. After stopping off in Pennine town New Mills to take photographs for an adult education session, the drive back was a little stressful, due to a blizzard in the Peak District. I didn’t fancy taking any of my usual shortcuts on minor roads as it looked too slippery, but luckily, but the time I arrived back in Sheffield, the long way round, there was no sign of snow!

The O2 felt pretty chilly though, but support band Mariachi El Bronx, who combine punk with Mexican Mariachi music, including tiny and gigantic guitars, trumpets, violins, accordions and maracas! I think it was Mark’s Santa had and Christmas tie (he’d just come from his work Christmas party) that made the singer announce that he was feeling Christmassy for the first time! The band looked great in proper gold-fringed Mariachi outfits.

Gogol Bordello themselves were a riot of colour, attitude and fun. Singer Eugene Hutz is the only person I can think of who would get away with wearing satin boxer’s style shorts and pointy black and red cowboy boots. Since I last saw them at Download last year, they’ve had some line-up changes – a leather-clad accordion player called Pasha, and bald, Les Paul toting guitarist Michael Ward (Eugene Hutz lied in his announcement – he’s American, not from Sheffield!) They played songs from their breakthrough album Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, right up to their latest album Pura Vida Conspiracy. Gogol Bordelo have built up a big cult following over the years, with a devoted audience wearing the t-shirts and outfits inspired by Hutz’s off-kilter colourful sense of style. The place was packed, but the crowd were friendly and up for a good dance/mosh.

Their sound is fresh and still evolving, with heavier guitars combining with Latin rhythms. They are one of the most multi-national bands I know of, formed in 1999 in the cultural melting-pot of down-town New York; the vision of Ukrainian immigrant Hutz, who was hungry for success as a musician and actor. A Gogol Bordello gig is a very entertaining experience – each member of the band is a stunning musician, and although Eugene Hutz is one of the world’s most engaging frontmen, every member of the band has a chance to shine, and violinist Sergey Ryabtsev deserves a special mention for his virtuosity and on-stage antics. The first time I saw them, in 2006, at Rock City in Nottingham, I hugged him! That’s my claim to fame, anyway. He looked quite surprised! This time, we just left with smiles on our faces and our ears ringing.

I felt a bit wrung out after two big gigs in a row. I don’t know how I hack it when I’m at a festival, but going to see a band in a proper venue is always a treat. I concentrated on Christmas and went back home to stay with my parents and see family members on the next weekend – it was good to calm down for a bit!

My mum is a volunteer room steward for the National Trust at Kedleston Hall, and she recommended that I visited the stately home while it was open for Christmas. My dad and I went along and I’m really glad I did. The sight of Grecian statues covered in fairy lights really made me giggle, and I loved the atmosphere of the grand rooms lit only by flickering LED candles. Even when it was lit for grand dinner parties and balls, this eighteenth century mansion must have been full of shadows and mystery. It was really a visit to spark the imagination.

The next day was the winter solstice. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll remember that I spent the summer solstice up Glastonbury Tor. That was a long way away, so I suggested that we should wake up before the official sunrise (8.15am) and walk to Bunkers Hill, a viewpoint near the ridiculously posh village of Quarndon, a mile or so up the road from my parents’ house. The sky was already turning red as we walked up Woodlands Road up to the park, but we got to Bunkers Hill just in time to see the sun rise above the horizon. We were lucky, because it started raining just as we got back to the house. Later on, we met up with family members and went to my Aunt Marion’s annual Christmas party. It was lovely to see everyone. I’ll always remember the 21st December as the anniversary of my grandad’s death, thirteen years ago, so my mum lit candles in his memory, which was lovely.

On Tuesday 23rd December, I gathered up some friends for a Christmas dinner (nut roast with all the trimmings) and lots of mulled wine. Eventually, we made it out of the house in time to catch the folk train! It was rammed, but very good-natured. Some of my friends managed to get seats, but the rest of us were crammed into the corridor but we didn’t mind! On the way to Edale, local choir The Sheffield Folk Chorale entertained us with Christmas carols and gave out song sheets so we could join in.

I hope the customers having a quiet night at the Rambler in Edale were warned about the hoards of people who descended on the pub in one go, once we got off the train! It was like being part of a huge procession walking from the railway station to the pub just around the corner. Surprisingly, we got served fairly quickly, and found a corner with seats to drink our pints. In the main room in the pub, the choir conductor stood on a table, and the choir started singing! They did a great version of Fairytale in New York, as well as more traditional carols.

On the way home, the choir sung some traditional Sheffield carols, such as Sweet Bells, which is a version of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’ which originates from Stannington in Sheffield and has now been made famous by folk singer Kate Rusby. It was a beautiful moment. At the other end of the journey, the choir sang around the Christmas tree at Sheffield railway station before we all headed off to the Sheffield Tap for a final beer.

I spent Christmas Eve collecting holly for a touch of traditional decoration, and preparing a mountain of vegetables for Christmas, even though there were only four people eating, enjoying listening to the radio adaptation of Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, followed by a selection of rockabilly Christmas CDs played by my other half!

Christmas Day went smoothly, except for my dad’s self-timer on his camera not working, and then the batteries ran out, but we used my camera instead, and we went for a lovely afternoon walk in the local park and took the chance to have a go on the huge swing that’s popped up near us! Even my dad had a go!

On the morning of Boxing Day, we had a bracing, if a little foggy walk to Stanage Edge from Redmires Reservoir, which was popular with a lot of other people trying to blow away the cobwebs after a Christmas blow-out! And then at tea-time, it started to snow…and snow…and snow… until we woke up the next day in a winter wonderland /nightmare, depending if you had to get anywhere. Luckily, we fell into the first category, and the snow looked very pretty, with lots of families enjoying sledging in Ruskin Park.

A few days later, and the snow had turned very icy and slippery on the pavements, which is tricky if you live in such a hilly city, so we caught the train when we went to meet an old uni friend in Castleton in the Peak District and went down the Blue John mine at Treak Cliff Cavern, which truly has some stunning sights, and actually felt quite warm underground!

And so we come to New Year’s Eve! The pavements were still icy, but I headed out to the city centre for some early drinks with a friend. It was very quiet, but I was due at another friend’s house for a small gathering with wine and pizza (I supplied my own vegan garlic bread and some Christmas cake – which I always seem to end up eating myself!) It was all very civilised, and for a while, it looked like we were destined to enjoy Jools Holland’s Hootenanny and the Queen concert that followed on TV. But my friend Angelina was determined to drag us out to enjoy ourselves, so we put our boots on and slid out onto the melting ice and headed first to the Three Tuns, a lovely little pub on the outskirts of the city centre, where the party was in full swing, with DJs playing some great music.

After a pint…or was it two? I can’t remember, we ended up at the Dada bar, where the Dub Central New Year’s party was happening. It was a bit quiet, but we know the lady who ran it, and I vaguely remember a round of aniseed flavoured shots! This was probably the point where things got a bit hazy.

We’d heard about a party in the Wicker Arches, so a group of us stumbled out of town, towards the Victorian railway arches. Over the years, several of the arches and the tunnels underneath have been used as party venues, and we headed to the last place we’d been to a party near there, only to find it all very quiet. Maybe the party was in one of the arches further along? I have vague memories of walking along the “spider bridge“, suspended over the river that runs through one of the arches. And then we found the party.

It was in the old “Arches” nightclub, which I hadn’t been inside for at least ten years. Angelina and I met in 2004, working together in a building very close by. The nightclub was already closed then, and shortly afterwards, the new ring-road was built, right next to the railway arches. Then the dramatic floods of 2007, when the river burst its banks and swept down the Wicker, must have caused terrible damage. But there it was, like some kind of mirage from 1999.

When we were students, a long time ago in the 90s, the Arches was a by-word for a crazy night out. Headcharge played dance music of all kinds, but mostly house, techno and trance. Rough and ready, it was the place to go if you wanted to rave all night long, with the main club inside the old railway arches, and metal stairs leading up to the bar, toilets (always a bit crazy in themselves), and a weird, corrugated iron-roofed chill-out area. It’s all still there. I was amazed. We just walked in through the fire escape, and it seemed to be a free party of some kind, but it was packed, and lots of people we knew were there – and lots of other people who were also veterans of the club scene in the 90s, who’d somehow ended up here. It was like being in a dream – a very strange, euphoric dream. It had to be a dream- the toilets had toilet paper! The music was thumping… it was like we’d taken a trip in the Tardis (although it had actually just been some wine, several pints of ale, that weird aniseed spirit, and some rum). I can’t even find anything about it on the internet…It was like a mirage.

Eventually, we looked at our watches and were absolutely mind-boggled to realise what the time was. It was about to get light! We were absolutely shattered. Within a few minutes, we’d flagged down a taxi and were on our way to a terrible New Year hangover. It was worth it though. The only clue that my Wicker Arches adventures were real was the mud on my coat and all over my boots. In my drunken state, I somehow managed to get the dustpan and brush and the carpet cleaner out before I stumbled into bed.

After all that excitement, I’ve been teetotal so far in the New Year. I’m looking forward to an action-packed year, when hard work and creativity are combined with good times with friends and amazing music of all kinds!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

November: a Levellers double-whammy!

On the first of November, I belatedly got my “spooky” on, and went to a brilliant Halloween party at Hagglers Corner, a wonderful arts venue set around a courtyard. My friends’ band The Hot Diamond Aces were playing. The band combine funk with Afro-beat and jazz and are, as they describe themselves “the ultimate party band”. They are amazingly talented musicians with a gift for getting the audience’s feet moving. If you like infectious grooves and hot horns, then they’re your thing. This sounds like an advert, but they really are that good! We had a fantastic time, dancing and drinking real ale in our costumes. Angelina had particularly scary latex zombie make-up, but it all peeled off when she started dancing!

As the weather got colder, and the nights got darker, I managed to fulfil one of my artistic aims for the year and completed my triptych of three canvasses for my dining room wall. They are all collages, and all Neil Gaiman quotes, to inspire me as I live and work. Now the pictures are up on the wall, they look great and really make the room vibrant and arty.

The first collage is from the Sandman graphic novel Brief Lives , and it’s all about change. The quote, cut out of newspaper letters, ransom-note style (which took blooming ages!) is positioned around concentric circles made of gold wrapping paper and a green collage, made out of cut-out pictures from the RSBP’s magazine, Nature’s Home, including an otter (the otter isn’t green!), and a green lighter which was found in the stomach of an albatross! The other smaller canvas has the quote: “Writing is like flying in dreams”, from the front page of Neil Gaiman’s short story anthology Smoke and Mirrors. This canvas has pictures of birds, from Nature’s Home magazine, and also real feathers, gathered over the year.

Finally, the huge canvas has the slogan “Make good art“, which was the theme of Neil Gaiman’s speech to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts graduates when receiving his honorary doctorate in 2012. Since giving the speech, the video has become viral on the internet, and has also inspired a lot of beautiful artwork. Mine is just one example! Before I left my sensible 9-5 job and ever since, I have listened to the speech at regular intervals, and I’m listening to it right now. His advice and experience is priceless and reflects everything that I’ve been through as a creative person. I wanted to create a piece of art that would inspire me and cheer me up when I lost faith in my way of life, so I cut up festival programmes for images to remind me of the times when art and creativity have created the most thrilling experiences and memories. Life would not be worth living without the creativity of others – or your own creativity. And I’ve been lucky enough to build a new career out of creativity, which is truly amazing.

Make Good Art

Make Good Art

This November was also about seeing the Levellers twice as well! The first time was in Birmingham, en route to another gathering of Oxfam stewards in Tewksbury. Louise and I did battle with rush-hour traffic and the one-way system of Birmingham, and we only missed a few songs by support band, the legendary two-tone band, the Selector. Singer Pauline Black is full of attitude and sharply dressed, and the other singer, Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson was also very energetic – so much so that his suit was dripping wet by the end of the show! I enjoyed having a good skank, dancing around until Louise managed to find Fraser. Oxfam friend Alexa was also there, and it was a great mini-reunion.

The Levellers were on great form, blasting through their “Greatest Hits” set. The O2 in Birmingham was packed, and people were crowd-surfing to the front – mostly middle aged men, re-living their youth! We had a great view of everything from the side, right near the front, and we danced around being silly. I didn’t even mind that all I could drink was a couple of shandies.

After dropping Alexa safely off home, I drove Louise and Fraser to our log cabin weekend in Tewksbury! We got there safely, to find the others enjoying the end of their party, which for some reason involved Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts. I was exhausted though, after all that driving!

On Saturday morning, some of the others were busy having a watersports session on the lake, which involved a giant swan-shaped pedallo, canoes and a wind-surfer! I love doing things like that, but for once, I was pleased that I hadn’t signed up for watersports. Even though the participants were wearing wetsuits, it looked very cold. So Clare, Jez and I went for a short walk, and we were rewarded by finding a £10 note on the grass verge, which we took straight to the pub!

After a leisurely lunch, a group of us went for a wander around Tewkesbury and the Abbey. Tewkesbury Abbey was really special and spiritual – I don’t think anyone could help but to be moved by such an ancient, beautiful building. The atmosphere of the golden stone and soaring arches was enhanced by a rehearsal of the Elgar concert, A Dream of Gerontius. Wandering around with the sound of the instruments and voices reverberating around the Abbey was very moving, and as we sat in the pews to listen to the singing, I even wrote a couple of haiku poems. Susie Morley has the only copies of those, as I wrote them in her notebook!

Walking down the medieval streets in the twilight afterwards, I started to feel Christmassy, and the decorations were already up in the half-timbered pub where we stopped for a couple of ales, before heading back to our log cabins at Croft Farm. The staff there served us up a lovely meal, and then we had a brilliant disco, fighting it out using Spotify to choose the songs we wanted. We had a particularly stupid time dancing to “Ra Ra Rasputin”, pretending to do Russian dancing on chairs! Towards the end of the night, I even managed to put on some old goth songs!

On Sunday, we drove into Tewksbury again, and I bought an awesome Russian army greatcoat from an antique shop (I must have been subliminally influenced by “Ra Ra Rasputin”!) We had a lovely lunch at a big Wetherspoons pub, all the Oxfam volunteers sitting along a really long table we cobbled together from several little ones. Eventually, it was time to head for home.

The week afterwards, it was time to do the whole Levellers thing again, for Kirsty’s birthday! This time, we caught the whole thing, really enjoying The Selector. We got much closer to the front for the Levellers, and the Sheffield O2 seemed very busy but much less packed than the Birmingham gig, so we got a great view from the front, while still being able to comfortably dance around. The Levellers are a band that have a very close relationship with their fans – I think I’ve had conversations with all of them, and certainly camped in the same field with them at Beautiful Days. Being at a Levellers gig feels like being part of a big tribe – it felt like that when we were sixteen, and it still feels like being truly with kindred spirits, even twenty one years later.

I can’t take credit for these pictures – Kirsty took them, because she’s taller and has a steadier hand! I think she did a fine job.

September: A whole lot of cider, art in Sheffield and a goth legend!

September was so warm and dry that it felt like summer was continuing, even though the nights were a little colder and it was starting to get dark earlier. I succumbed to the temptation to help out at another festival. Fellow Oxfam steward Jon Scott and his partner Sian had organised their own festival, the Bo Peep Cider Festival near Adderbury in Oxfordshire. My friend Alexa came too, and we travelled down on the Friday night, arriving in the dark to put our tents up and sample some cider from the bewildering selection!

There were over 100 ciders to try to sample!

There were over 100 ciders to try to sample!

We watched some excellent local bands and enjoyed some fruit-flavour cider. A few more Oxfam stalwarts were also helping out, and we had a good catch-up.

On Saturday, we did some gentle stewarding. I wandered around the main field, making sure that everything was running smoothly, and even helped out with a giant dragon on parade!

Here be dragons!

Here be dragons!

In the evening, we drank cider until it came out of our ears and enjoyed more music. The cider festival was the last stand for George the Horse before his rest and recuperation on the Continent. He will reappear on the festival circuit next year with his woodwork and stuffing in fine fettle. So, feeling slightly creaky, George enjoyed rocking, but gently! We watched festival favourites Leatherat, and had a great time.

George enjoys a final outing of 2014 with his foster dad Graham.

George enjoys a final outing of 2014 with his foster dad Graham.

On Sunday morning, we reluctantly said goodbye to the Clydesdale horses who had been giving rides (and the remaining barrels of cider), and drove back home. It had been lovely to have a final taste of the festival world before buckling down to an autumn of hard work.

A big 'orse

A big ‘orse – bigger than George the Horse!

Later in September, I explored Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind, an  explosion of art installations, performances and thought-provoking events around the city. My favourite part of the festival was the Sheffield Bazaar, an art take-over of the old Co-Op department store in Sheffield City Centre. It was a chance to see the craftsmanship and pride that went into this stunning 1960s building with sculptures, stained glass, fine woodwork and its beautiful spiral staircase.

I used to shop in Castle House for shoes and towels, and it was the end of an era when it closed down four years ago. It was great to see its doors open again, full of weird and wonderful things: an experiment in living, where a group of people were living in a temporary space inside the department store for the ten days of the festival. There was also a castle built out of cardboard, graffiti art combined with living plants, small spaces to watch films, virtual reality helmets to try on (they made me very dizzy), a tent with an installation about the human nervous system, photography, lectures, and even a poet who could write you a haiku to order!

There was a great atmosphere in the city while all this art was going on – unexpected things happening everywhere, and the weather sunny and warm. There was also a mini “Chance to Dance” event on the Moor in the city centre, and I performed with Mulembas D’Africa.

We also enjoyed the first gig of the autumn season: Wayne Hussey from the Mission (one of the biggest goth/alternative bands in the 80s). He was playing a solo acoustic gig at the Greystones on the outskirts of Sheffield. It was a brilliant, intimate gig, and Wayne did a brilliant job, swapping from ukulele to mandolin and many beautiful guitars. The gig was slightly marred by a drunken idiot, shouting “Wayne!” and stumbling around and pushing into people. Thankfully, he got thrown out, but not before Wayne Hussey swore at him!

It was good to go to a gig with my other half, as this was one of the rare occasions when our musical tastes converge and we want to do the same thing at the same time. As we left the pub, the rain started to fall – it was the start of Autumn proper at last.

Wayne Hussey with Simon Hinkler

Wayne Hussey with Simon Hinkler

Art and Decay: a walk home

I’ve decided that once I’ve finished my festival reviews (I’ve still got Shambala to review, and a cider festival coming up!) I’m going to do more blog posts in the form of photo journals and poetry. Actually, I was inspired by Shambala, as I was in the audience at the epic Sunday afternoon poetry slam, and really enjoyed the contributions by poets from Sheffield’s Wordlife.

Today, I was walking home from the city centre, after an interview with a teaching supply agency (I seem to be collecting agencies!), and treating myself to coffee and cake in the Blue Moon Cafe. Maybe it was the effect of the caffeine, but I started taking photographs. The back streets that take me directly back to Walkley fascinate me – a mixture of derelict steel and cutlery trade buildings, wooded wasteland, fancy new apartments, businesses, and accommodation for students, many of them Chinese. As the sun goes down on Scotland Street, the area turns into the red light district. If you end up there by mistake, and hollow-eyed girls start to lurk in the abandoned factory doorways, you want to break into a run, as the feeling of menace grows. But there’s beauty in the decay too.

On the walls of the old industrial buildings, graffiti artists have pasted disturbing faces that add to the unsettling atmosphere, but around the corner, the Furnace Park is transforming an area of unclaimed wasteland into a celebration of art, technology, recycling and Sheffield culture.

Anyway, I hope you like my poem!

Walking Home

Walking home, on Scotland Street
Past an abandoned pub. Demolished buildings
Transformed into an early autumn wood,
Rowan berries ripe. A blackbird calls,
Cutting across the roar of ring-road traffic.
Sinister photocopied faces stare down at me
From boarded windows, scrawled graffiti
Shouts back at redundant safety signs
And a bundle of clothes in a doorway
Reminds me that behind the ash and elder
Springing from pavement cracks and asphalt
It changes when the sun goes down around here.
Broken girls loom in shadows, cars crawl
You’d better run if you don’t belong.
Back to the safe University side of the street
Where the slums were cleared for parks and puppies
Where you’ll never know that whole families lived
In rooms the size of your white en-suite.

Hidden Histories

The new year has already been very busy and is full of possibilities. This month, I’m saying “yes” to gifts and opportunities that come my way, which seems to be very fruitful so far.

On Saturday, I decided to join a guided walk with a poet that would end with a writing workshop in a lovely real ale pub. But the walk wasn’t in the hills of the peak district. It was one of the “Unregistered Sheffield” walks, a project run by Art in the Park, an environmental arts organisation based here in Sheffield. I was curious about the format of the walk and the techniques that the walk leader, poet Bill Cooper would use on the walk and in the workshop (because I’m interested in leading walks combined with creative writing workshops too!) And also, for months, I’ve been intrigued by Wardsend Cemetery, a Victorian cemetery, abandoned for years, on the banks of the River Don behind Hillsborough. However, I’d been told that it was a bit spooky, so I didn’t dare visit it on my own! I’m a wuss!

Despite a downpour earlier on Saturday morning, it was bright and clear as I set off for the meeting point in Hillsborough. But the streets were already busy with Sheffield Wednesday supporters and alarming numbers of police, before a Wednesday vs Leeds local Derby match. However, by the tram stop next to the Rawson Spring pub at Hillsborough corner, it was easy to spot the walkers – people of all ages, dressed in cagoules and fleeces which weren’t in blue and white stripes! I was pleased to meet Zoe, a lady who had attended the writing workshop I ran in October. We set off towards Hillsborough College and Penistone Road, already feeling “different” than I do on my shopping trips and errands that I usually run around here. As we crossed the dual carriageway – where I’ve driven thousands of times, we stopped under the huge sign for Owlerton Stadium. Bill said that we had crossed an “invisible line”, away from the world of cars and business, and the walk started to take on its own pace. We talked about the church of St John the Baptist, and the Swann Morton factory over the road, which makes most of the surgical blades in the world!

A sculptural stack of tyres

A sculptural stack of tyres at Owlerton Stadium

We walked past Hillsborough College, Napoleon’s Casino and around the back of Owlerton Stadium, where we found this rather sculptural stack of old tyres filling a whole in the fence! For years, I had wondered what the roaring engine noise was that could be heard from Crookes and Walkley on still nights. The stadium has hosted speedway racing since it opened in 1929 and all kinds of motor sports, including stock cars and monster trucks (which might be where those tyres came from!) The stadium is also famous for greyhound racing, which can be a cruel sport for dogs who don’t make the grade. But Owlerton stadium does support the Retired Greyhound Trust. We rounded the corner, and crossed the river at the back of the Cadbury Trebor Bassett factory, which smelled delicious, like toasted chocolate. Bassett’s Allsorts are made here! It was lovely to chat to the other walkers: artists, writers and people curious about hidden Sheffield.

IMG_3724

The river Don, behind the sweet factory!

As we crossed the river, memories came back to me, of driving slowly the long way round to Coopers Car Spares in 2008, after our beloved Fiat Cinquecento had spewed the insides of its exhaust onto Penistone Road and wasn’t firing on four cylinders any more. My last sight of it before I scrapped it was of a very large man being laughed at by his colleagues as he tried to drive the sluggish car up the hill in the scrapyard. I hadn’t even noticed the cemetery then, ironically, as I was taking my car to meet its end! And the cemetery is right next to Cooper’s scrap yard, the mechanical and human remains lying in close proximity.

Wardsend Cemetery

Wardsend Cemetery

We gathered around an impressive Victorian memorial, and Bill explained the background to the cemetery. When someone said: “where did people buried here come from?” Bill mentioned that many of the graves were from soldiers stationed at Hillsborough Barracks (now Morrisons’ Supermarket!), but I spotted that the memorial in front of me was dedicated to John Register, of Fir View, Walkley, which caught my eye. He must have been someone important in the community, with his prominent marble grave, and several other relatives had been buried in the same plot. We were given twenty minutes to wander around the cemetery but I noted the engraving on John Register’s gravestone for a six year old child: “the mother gave in tears and pain. The only flower she had to love. Assured she’ll find it once again. In heavenly fields of light above”. I stood and noted the call of great tits, the shafts of sunlight, the delicious, waffly smell from the Cadbury’s factory, the hum of the nearby electricity pylons, a call of a jackdaw and a distant roar of traffic.

Eerie gravestones amongst the bracken

Eerie gravestones amongst the bracken

I hadn’t left much time to explore the rest of the cemetery, so I took pictures of old gravestones and the wildlife that had taken over. I made my way quickly over the railway bridge to see the graves on the other side – Wardsend was the only major cemetery in the country bisected by a railway line. The gravestones on the other side were an eerie sight – half hidden by crispy brown bracken as the land on the other side turns into heath. There had evidently been a fire – perhaps in the dry summer, which had blackened some of the trees into skeletons, but the gravestones had survived, stubbornly. When we gathered again as a group, Bill showed us the Obelisk, which commemorated soldiers from Hillsborough Barracks, who had died in the 1860s. We also found a broken column lying on its side – the gravestone of a young girl. The broken column represented a life cut off before its prime. Wardsend cemetery used to have its own chapel, until it was demolished, and the graveyard was abandoned.

Keep Out!

Keep Out!

We walked along Club Mill Road – it had been a “proper” road when I had driven my car to the scrapyard in 2008 – because the bridge we’d walked along had been swept away by the floods in the summer of 2007. But now the road has been blocked to traffic and it is starting to resemble a riverside path, abounding with wildlife. The river flowed swiftly and we saw how the Parkwood landfill tip is being landscaped, with trees planted. We walked past demolished factories and a lady who was one of the walkers said that there used to be cooling towers here, by the side of the river. There was a large, grassy mound there now, and a half demolished, grafitti-covered wall on the other side of the road, it’s “keep out” notices redundant now there was just a grassy hill on the other side, rather than a factory. We mused on how Sheffield evolves and re-creates itself, in the space of relatively few years. Nature is reclaiming this part of Sheffield.

The old mill and the tree

The old mill and the tree

After a while, we reached the point on the road where traffic is allowed, and there are various industrial units. We felt like we were returning to “normality”. But then we heard a cockerel crowing. In yard of a ramshackle taxi garage was a man feeding a small flock of fancy chickens and fan-tailed doves with bird seed. It was an unexpected and endearing sight. We could still hear the cockerel when Gary showed us the old mill, complete with a rusting metal water wheel. The ruined mill, behind a row of Heras fencing, had a really spooky atmosphere – and all of my photos of the mill have come out blurred! There was an incredibly large, twisted willow tree nearby. Near the mill, an angler sat serenely on the river bank.

The old gates of Hillfoot County School

The old gates of Hillfoot County School

One of the walkers was a lady who had grown up on the Parkwood Spring estate, which was demolished many years ago. She showed us the coke depot where people used to queue to scramble on the slag heap for nuggets of coke during World War II and afterwards, when fuel was still rationed. She showed us the gates of her old school, blocked by a young ash tree and buddleia and the scruffy wall of a corrugated factory, where there was once a Victorian School building. Barbara vividly remembered fights outside the school gates and running up the hill when she found out that George VI had died. There was more rubbish and detritus between here and the derelict Farfield Inn – a culvert full of tyres and rubbish bags, an unpleasant cave  full of broken things where a few walls of a demolished factory stood – evidently a hiding place for someone up to no good. The atmosphere became edgy and oppressive as the road became a narrow alleyway.

It was a relief to be on the industrial streets again, and we passed close by Neepsend Gasometer and its huge gas pipe, which I can see from Walkley, but I didn’t know what it was before. It used to be obscured by a huge art-deco factory which was demolished a few years ago, taking part of the building next door with it. As we reached the Gardener’s Rest, a real ale oasis in the post-industrial desert, we stopped to look at the old brewery building and the ingenious graffiti mural. Sheffield ia a virtual gallery of street art, with work around many obscure corners by artists who have become well-respected in the art world. Check some of them out here: http://sheffieldstreetart.tumblr.com/.

Graffiti mural in Neepsend

Graffiti mural in Neepsend

Once inside the warm, sunny conservatory of the pub, we ate lunch, enjoyed a drink (I had a pint of shandy), and chatted. Bill talked us through a series of writing exercises, asking us to list the things we had found charming, or sad or shocking on our walk. We listed verbs: “glitter, sparkle, splash, squelch, crunch, reflect, fester, cockadoodledoo”, and imagined conversations taking place in the cemetery, at the gates of the old school and at the garage where the man was feeding the chickens. We had time to draft a piece of writing inspired by one of the exercises. I’ve been writing more poetry recently, but I found myself writing a story about some sixth-formers from the college holding a seance in the cemetery, which I’ll try to finish soon! If it works, I might have a great Young Adult novel on my hands – in my head, it’s threatening to develop into something much longer.

The walk was a great adventure. It felt like we were exploring a hidden world, yet only a short walking distance from home. I met an interesting mixture of like-minded people – and I’ll definitely be going along to the Unregistered Sheffield celebration event this Sunday afternoon in the pavillion in Hillsborough Park. There’s always something interesting, stimulating and creative to do in Sheffield – and even in the midst of industrial decay, there is beauty and wonder – and amazing stories.

Soaring above Stanage

I’ve not finished with 2013 yet. It’s been a year of massive change – of getting rid of the job that had come to dominate my life – like “a big block of lard on my plate”, as I described it during a coaching session with the amazing Beverley Ward who works for Writing Yorkshire and helps writers to be productive and creative. I said that I wanted my life to look like a plate from a brilliant buffet, or plate of tapas, with lots of interesting dishes to sample rather than one thing dominating in my life!

My life has definitely been full since leaving my job at the end of April. There have been moments of celebration, and moments of fear and panic – but I’ve learned so much about where my life and my writing is going, and the things that are really important to me. It was important to reach this Christmas alive and creative, to celebrate it on my own terms.

This time last year, my life was a mess. I enjoyed Christmas with my partner and family, and New Year’s Eve with friends in Bolton. But I was knotted up inside with anxiety, utterly miserable in my job, and desperate to escape, but not sure what I wanted to escape to. I tried applying for admin jobs – without getting anywhere. I didn’t even know if I’d have a job once I returned to the office in January.

This year, life is very different. I needed to take a break for Christmas, but it was my decision when to stop, and how. Perhaps my life is now more like the Christmas dinner I made for my family: creative, adapted to suit me, making use of everyday ingredients: breadcrumbs, carrots, parsnips, leeks, butter beans and chestnuts. I used my creative mind to turn each dish into something special, with garlic, herbs and spices. And I felt proud to serve the meal in my transformed dining room. It’s been so much work recently, spending all my spare time covered in paint, painstakingly painting the skirting board or stretching to touch up the ceiling and hiding grotty corners with filler. I defy any slugs to crawl through the skirting board now! Ha! Once the decorations come down, I won’t have a sad, shabby room, I’ll have an inspiring, creative space. And my family and friends have chipped in to help, with Christmas presents of armchairs and money towards furnishing. The carpet is still grubby, but that’s another project!

We’ve been lucky with the weather so far too. The south of England has suffered with stormy winds, floods and power cuts over the Christmas period, and as I’m writing, the day is gloomy, windy and wet. But there has been plenty of gorgeous winter weather too. I’ve been walking with friends, my partner or family almost every day of the festive period so far: to Allestree Woods with my dad; onto the Bolehills with Katy and her dog Dave to gather holly and ivy for Christmas, and a quick wander around Walkley with my parents, my partner and his brother on Christmas day, after dinner!

On Boxing Day, I went on a more dramatic walk with my friend Louise. We made sandwiches from Christmas dinner leftovers – mushroom and chestnut bake and home-made stuffing – essentially a bread sandwich – but it tastes quite chicken-like! We headed out to Redmires again, under blue winter skies. We walked around the top reservoir and up the path that leads to Stanage. We’d never walked this route before, but it seemed very popular, with families and groups of friends all with the same idea. After quite a short walk, we reached Stanedge pole, a pole amongst a group of rocks. We didn’t know anything about it, but I’ve since learned (thanks to Wikipedia), that it’s a marker on an old packhorse route. it must have been a welcome sight in past centuries, a sign of civilisation on the desolate moors and the treacherous gritstone edge of Stanage. The spelling difference is deliberate! The pole seemed to be a gathering point for groups of walkers and we joined them for a quick bite of Christmas cake.

We marvelled at the view – Stanage Edge sharply marked out against a bank of white cloud, with the silhouettes of paragliders swooping over the cliffs. As we walked closer to the edge, the scenery was stunning, although after eating our sandwiches and admiring the view, our hands froze numb and the fog rolled in, hiding the village of Hathersage from view, and we remembered how inhospitable the Peak District landscape can be when the sun isn’t shining. I’ve been on some wet, desolate walks on Stanage, as well as glorious, soul-soaring ones!

I always feel proud that I’ve got such beautiful countryside on my doorstep. I started this year being forced to commute to an uninspiring industrial part of Derby – but over the course of this year, I’ve been drawn into Derbyshire and the Peak District; to the beauty of my local community in Sheffield. My work in Derbyshire at the Newholme hospital is set to continue, and expand into other areas. Perhaps areas where people are surrounded by beauty and possibility, but need help to set their imaginations, and themselves free.

Sometimes the real world doesn’t look like the map…

That’s what I found myself thinking on Sunday as we found the stile several hundred metres from where the path seemed to start on the Ordnance Survey map, and then found ourselves sinking in a bog. It was the first time I’d convinced the other half to go on a walk with me in a long time and it wasn’t quite what I’d envisaged.

I’d been able to tempt him out by reports that Redmire Reservoirs were haunted. Visitors to the Sheffield Forum reported a “strange sense of unease” when walking there. Some people have reportedly seen the ghosts of the World War One soldiers, the Sheffield City battalion, who had their camp and trained in trench building near the dams. 248 of these men died in the battle of Serre in 1916. There are also reports of a “ghost plane” in the area, perhaps a world War Two bomber, or the American Airforce plane, which crashed into the nearby Lodge Moor hospital in 1955.

The reservoirs themselves date from 1836; a chain of three. They were built to provide Sheffield with clean water following a cholera epidemic in 1832. Sheffield is surrounded by reservoirs, fed by clear moorland streams and dammed rivers.

It was a crystal blue day, the first of the winter frosts, but with the woods still rich in autumn colour. We could have been miles away from anywhere, on the top of the moors, but we were only a few miles away from home, still within the Sheffield city boundary.

We set off early on Sunday morning and drove to Lodge Moor, along Redmires Road, until it narrowed and the road was bordered by fields, woods and the odd isolated cottage. We parked in a car park at Wyming Brook, where an inviting, well-maintained bridleway, formerly a road, wound through a wooded valley full of birdsong towards another set of reservoirs, the Rivelin Dams. But we had come here to walk around the reservoirs. I’d looked at a map on the internet and it looked like there was a nice clear path, running all the way around the three reservoirs.

An almost empty reservoir

An almost empty reservoir

The map indicated that there would be a path through the wood, and after walking past an isolated farm, we found a footpath. It was boggy in places and there was an eerie atmosphere as the sun filtered through the pine trees and we passed an overspill that looked like an abandoned bob-sleigh run. We ended up at a water treatment plant with twentieth century houses which would have belonged to the water board. Redmires is almost the highest point in Sheffield and it was so cold and crisp that I couldn’t feel my feet any more, despite hiking boots and two pairs of socks. The tarmac drive was slippery, the grass was white and there was a large icy puddle. Winter was coming fast.

The overflow in the woods

The overflow in the woods

We took a wrong turning on the path to the reservoir, and ended up at a derelict post war water treatment centre. This place certainly had a strange atmosphere, with its doors and windows shuttered with metal, peeling paint and a defunct sign next to a rusty doorbell: “press here for attention” on a side door that hadn’t opened in years, complete with a decrepit doormat. We turned back and found the path.

There was a jogger and a couple of dog walkers on the path around the top of the dam. But a sign said that walkers were not allowed up there. I decided to ignore them. After all, if questioned by some water board official, I still have a valid water hygiene card from my old job in the utilities industry (which allows me to go behind the scenes in water treatment works, or enter excavations – not as exciting as it sounds!) We scrambled up the bank, and were disappointed that the reservoir was mostly empty. There were excavators, temporary Heras fencing and the rattle of generators, but the view from the dam was breathtaking.

Approached the second dam, we clambered up the steep grassy bank. There was even less water in this reservoir! We walked around the gravel path, feeling a little illegal, until we arrived at another temporary fence, blocking the reservoir from the road, with a large digger parked in front of it. The fence wasn’t very well secured, and there was a way to squeeze out onto the road. Despite the reservoir being a construction site, it felt sinister, and there was a dead hare lying in front of the fence. It had obviously been dead for some time. The site compound was opposite here. No one stirred, but one of the welfare unit (toilet/shower) doors was swinging open, and it felt uncomfortably like someone was watching us.

The abandoned hut

The abandoned hut

We walked on, sticking to the road, which curved around the top reservoir. There were more people around now, parking up to enjoy a walk. Further on, a river flowed into the reservoir, with a path leading off it towards Rivelin. There was a large bell-mouth spillway, like a giant plughole. Next to the path was a ruined brick building, looking like a witch’s hut from a fairy tale. We enjoyed exploring it, and posing, looking out of the windows that had long ago lost their glass.

The rest of the walk along the road was enjoyable, admiring the smooth expanse of blue water and sky, the reservoir only ruffled by swimming mallards and seagulls bobbing in the water. Families and groups of walkers were parking up – but we’d hardly seen any people so far around the other reservoirs. The road ran out, with thick, mysterious woods on one side and a sign for ‘Redmires Lodge’. There’s a house in the woods and a very isolated shooting lodge, which would be a spooky place to spend the night.

All the walkers were making their way up a path which leads towards Stanage Edge, another favourite landmark for Sheffield walkers. The path didn’t go in the direction we wanted to go, and it was crowded with people strolling and chatting in large groups. We decided to take a path which would lead us higher up around the other side of the reservoir, near some interesting looking stones on the map. Unfortunately, this is where we got stuck in the bog – perfectly ordinary looking grass tussocks that squelched and oozed when we stood on them. We retraced our steps and found a muddy but stable path around the other side of the reservoir. We scrambled up onto the dam of the top reservoir and climbed over a wall before rejoining the road and making our way back to the car.

Clear blue skies and water

Clear blue skies and water

It was an interesting walk, and we managed to find a way to walk around the reservoirs. We enjoyed ourselves and exercised in the fresh air. In the clear, sunny conditions, we didn’t find it spooky, but it was certainly atmospheric, although I’m sure I would find it terrifying if I was alone here at dusk. However, we will definitely be back to explore Redmires – investigating Wyming Brook, the path with the spooky ruined cottage, and the track leading to Stannage. I can’t believe I haven’t been here in eighteen years of living in Sheffield, but we will have many more years of enjoying this place. There were difficulties at times, but we had fun in the sunshine.

This blog post is about a walk, and it isn’t an extended metaphor, but my life does feel like this walk at times. If I keep going, I will reach my destination of having a stable career as a creative writing tutor, with a thriving editing business and my own novels published and read by thousands of people. There are bound to be diversions, adventures, blocks and boggy bits along the way, but they are part of the journey, and I am already on my way there.

The power of a solo walk – the Porter Valley

In need of fresh air and thinking time…

I’ve been feeling a little out of sorts. I think it’s the change in the seasons, and my natural anxiety in the process of  changing careers and becoming self employed. Some things have been going brilliantly well – my writing workshop for Off the Shelf has filled up, due to my own hard work, and I’m in the middle of another freelance editing project. But some things start well and then take more time than expected to get off the ground. I always think I can do more than I can in one day – and the task of writing my second novel has been languishing behind more exciting tasks such as cleaning the bathroom!

I’m making lots of links with people to build my business, developing new ideas, and learning new skills all the time. But I know I could be doing more, working harder or smarter. There are lots of “shoulds” in life, aren’t there? Sometimes these days, I surprise myself with my own confidence; sometimes I’m cursing myself for the smallest mistake. I’m aiming to be on the look out for every opportunity: concentrating on keeping my life afloat and moving forwards in the right direction.

So on Sunday, I decided to go for a walk. My other half didn’t want to come, but it was such a lovely warm day, I had to make the most of it. And if it’s a choice between doing something I really want to do on my own, or not doing it at all, I’ll go for the solo option. And a solo walk is always an adventure. When I start walking from the house and find myself in the Bolehills and the Rivelin Valley, there are so many paths to take that I just choose them on a whim, not knowing where I’m going to end up, but knowing where I am from the contours of the land, the ramshackle allotments, the incongruous tower blocks of Stannington, and the swift river flowing through the bottom of the valley. These walks can be quite magical and unpredictable.

The Queen Victoria Jubilee Monument - a good spot for reading

The Queen Victoria Jubilee Monument – a good spot for reading

This Sunday, I decided on one of the other famous valley walks in Sheffield, the Porter Valley. This walk starts in Endcliffe Park, a popular park in Hunters Bar (immortalised by the Arctic Monkeys on their first album) with a large playing field, duck ponds and a cafe abounding with “yummy mummies” of this upmarket area of Sheffield. it’s also a favourite student area, and I parked on Ranby Road, a terraced street running down to the park, where I lived in my second year at university, catching up with my reading list by Queen Victoria’s jubilee memorial.

A heron! On the busiest pond in Sheffield.

A heron! On the busiest pond in Sheffield.

The park was busy with footballers, picnickers, kids and cute dogs. As I walked past the first pond, I had my first surprise. The pond is usually a bit boring, rather silted up, with the world’s fattest mallards bobbing around on the surface, staring disdainfully at the sliced white bread being thrown at them. They prefer ciabatta, daarling. But there in the trees, in full view of everyone, was a heron. A mother and daughter pointed it out, and soon, crowds had gathered to point and take photographs. Herons are quite common, really, but there’s still something special about them, scruffily elegant and mysterious.

I moved on, enjoying the vivid autumn colours and entertained by the antics of dogs who seemed determined to jump into the stream. Taking a few quieter paths, I saw a charming little grey wagtail, catching flies and bobbing around.

Steps made out of grindstones at Shepherd Wheel

Steps made out of grindstones at Shepherd Wheel

The Shepherd Wheel Mill was working today. Each pond on the Porter Valley used to be a millpond – powering water-powered grinding wheels for sharpening cutlery and tools. Shepherd Wheel is the only grinding mill- on any of Sheffield’s rivers, in existence, and it’s been restored over the last few years, with a working water wheel and the grinder’s wheels inside. The place bores my other half rigid, but I like it. it’s an important part of Sheffield’s history, and I find the noise of the wheels turning, and the water in the wheel, quite relaxing. It’s picturesque, dating back to the 1500s. In its heyday, it would have been a noisy, dangerous, dusty place to work – the whole valley would have been very industrial.  In the restored millpond, a lady was encouraging her Labrador to swim to fetch a ball – he was having a wonderful time.

A shaft of sunlight in the woods

A shaft of sunlight in the woods

Soon after the mill, a road crosses the path, and on the other side, it’s more wooded. There were still a fair amount of people taking a Sunday stroll or bike ride, but woodland and birdsong were taking over. There are some wonderful old, gnarled trees, and it really started to smell like autumn; of damp earth and fungi. I took atmospheric photographs of sunlight through the dappled leaf canopy.

Never mind the bullocks!

Never mind the bullocks!

Eventually, I ended up at Forge Dam, with its round pond, now rather silted up, and legendary cafe, recently refurbished. I had an excellent chip butty for lunch and sat outside in the Sunshine, amused by the rather posh clientèle, and large dogs causing chaos. I was going to end my walk here, but I decided that I was up for an adventure. I fancied a walk to the llama and alpaca farm – yes, you heard correctly, in Ringinglow, After Forge Dam, the path runs through the Mayfield Valley. This is definitely the countryside, there are fields on either side of the path, picturesque farms, and the high-rise buildings of the city look very distant. I passed a field of curious bullocks.

Just around the corner, the path to the village of Ringinglow climbs steeply uphill through a field. Once I walked up here and the field was full of cows with large pointed horns, but I was lucky this time – there was just a group of children launching themselves down the hill, loving the feeling of being out of control. It was a hard slog up the hill, but the view was worth it, miles of green valley, with the landmarks of Sheffield clear but tiny on the horizon. At the top, I exchanged out of breath pleasantries with a family visiting the Alpaca farm. As I walked into the village, I could see the long-necked animals in their fields, but I didn’t feel like paying to walk around the fields on the other side of the fence – after all, I’d already seen them!

Porter Clough

Porter Clough

Instead, I walked on until I reached Porter Clough, the very top of the Porter Valley walk, on the edge of the Peak District, where the stream is little more than a trickle from the moors. The steep-sided valley is covered in ancient woodland. I managed to avoid the rain of acorns falling in the woods. Although it was still t-shirt weather, the leaves were steadily twirling down.  I took the higher paths on the way back, to vary the route, and picked up my pace, and it wasn’t long before I was on Ranby Road again.

A solo walk is a great way to clear your mind and allow your thoughts to settle. I also find it good for creativity. Walking alone always makes me want to write poetry – and occasionally, I do. That’s why a familiar route on a reliable path is good, as no map-reading is required and you’re not going to get stuck in boggy bits when you’re not concentrating! One of my other favourite solo walks in Sheffield is around Damflask reservoir, near Bradfield village. It can be managed in just over an hour and it’s good if you just want to get away from it all for a while!

Safety first though! If you are going walking on your own, you might want to stick to tried-and-tested routes at first, where there will be other walkers. If you’re using a map to plan your route, make sure it’s manageable in the time you have. Wear sensible footwear! Bring a waterproof jacket, water, an OS map if you need it, a snack, or enough money to buy one. Bring your mobile phone, although a reception isn’t always guaranteed in mountainous regions! And always tell someone where you’re going and roughly when you expect to come home (not that I do all of these things all the time!) When you do get home, you’ll definitely be feeling better than when you set off!

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