Spring Starts to bloom

The Random Notebook has been a bit quiet recently…but that doesn’t mean that I’ve been quiet. For a while, it seemed like spring was very slow to arrive this year. The days were gradually getting longer, but it was still full coat, hat and gloves weather most of the time. I’ve been busy with my teaching and writing work, and I’ve been making sure that the blog for my work in hospitals with dementia patients has been updated: Dales Tales website.

After the Spring Equinox, we headed to Whitby to spend almost a whole week walking and exploring at the end of March. Actually, we’d visited most of the places before, but it was lovely to return and relax. As it was later in the spring than our usual trips to Whitby, it was a lot busier, especially on the Sunday, and we decided that we like the streets of Whitby better when they are quiet and atmospheric.

However, it was lovely to see the town in bright sunshine, with people and dogs enjoying the beach.

Whitby piers and some seagulls!

Whitby piers and some seagulls!

We had a great time looking around the abbey and taking photos from strange angles, and I bought a lovely hand-knitted beret for a bargain price from the church. I was glad of something to keep the hair away from my face, as our next stop was the East pier – quite dramatic with the tide rolling in. The piers in Whitby are part of the harbour for the fishing port, made out of rugged stone, with weathered lighthouses withstanding the winds.

On the Monday, we walked from Whitby to Robin Hood’s Bay. It really felt like spring and I photographed some stunning views over the cliffs. I was grateful for the “1,000-mile socks” that I’d bought the day before. Apparently, I get my money back if I get blisters while wearing the socks, and by the time I arrived in the picturesque fishing village, I was aching but my feet felt alright!

Tuesday was spend wandering around Whitby, having a lovely walk along the beach, discovering a strange alfresco sculpture garden, pottering around shops and enjoying chips and mushy peas from Robertsons (all the other chippies in Whitby seem to cook in beef fat rather than vegetable oil, which isn’t good for veggies!) We were under the watchful eye of some herring gulls standing on top of nearby parked cars, but they were more interested in a couple who had a battered fish. In the quaint bookshop on Church Street I spent my book token on the excellent Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor – a novel that brings to life the long gone world of the fishing village.

In the evening, we hit a few local pubs: the Duke of York, which overlooks the harbour, and on the other side of the river, the Little Angel, which serves great ale, and the Granby, where I unexpectedly won the pub bingo!

Wednesday was our only chance to explore the Mulgrave Estate near Sandsend, just a couple of miles further north than Whitby. The estate is only open at weekends and Wednesdays. In the middle of this wooded private estate, lie the ruins of a medieval castle. This time, we thought we would also check out the waterfalls marked on the map, and the remains of an older Norman motte and bailey . We found everything we were looking for, but the paths marked on the OS map didn’t seem to coincide with reality, and we got ourselves a bit lost and muddy into the bargain! We did find the atmospheric ruins of an old water mill though.

We managed a quick trip to Whitby museum in the afternoon, savouring the gruesome “hand of glory”, a desiccated human hand used by burglars, and learning about the First World War torpedo raid on Whitby and Scarborough in a great new exhibit.

When we woke on Thursday morning, the sunny weather had disappeared, to be replaced by heavy rain showers and leaden skies. There was just time for a final walk around Whitby before heading back to Sheffield.

The Easter holidays officially started with several days of grey, gloomy weather, which was very wet, filling the streams and reservoirs. Maundy Thursday was bright and sunny – the Queen even visited Sheffield, but I kept out of it and went for a lovely walk up to Ringinglow on the edge of the Peak District instead.

Good Friday was terrible again, but the weather started to pick up on Easter Saturday, when we walked around Damflask reservoir and laboured up to Higher Bradfield to look around the medieval church that was bustling with people creating floral displays and Easter decorations.

Easter Monday was a beautiful day – more like summer, and I joined friends at the Endcliffe Park duck race, an annual event to raise money to restore Forge Dam, a pond further up the river that has become badly silted up. The event has quickly become a Sheffield institution, with thousands of people buying ducks and watching the race. We walked to Forge dam later on in the afternoon, and I had one of their legendary chip butties!

I’ve been catching up with some freelance editing work this week, and it’s been great to be able to work outside again on my laptop – it’s great for concentrating too, as my internet connection is poor to non-existent at the bottom of the garden.

This Saturday was much cooler, but the evening held something exciting in store. Scott Doonican, the singer from one of my favourite festival acts of recent years, The Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican, was playing a sold-out solo gig in the intimate surroundings of the Lantern Theatre in Netheredge, Sheffield. The gig was a triumph, showcasing hilarious songs from their new album as well as old favourites. If you like comedy folk bands and witty covers, they’re the band for you, and the friends I took along with me are now firm converts.

But we had to be up early this morning! One of my new “Dooni-fans” from the night before was taking part in the Sheffield Half-Marathon, re-launched this year with a new route that stretches into the Peak District. The weather was quite sunny, but so windy that I was almost blown off my feet several times, as we waited for the runners at the side of Ringinglow Road. There was a great atmosphere, as athletes jogged past, having just completed the dramatic hill climb out of the city. As spectators giving encouragement to the runners, we weren’t going anywhere as far or as fast – in fact, we just returned to the Forge Dam café for another chip butty. I’ve now mentioned chips a record three times in one blog entry – that’s truly Northern!

It’s been good to change the pace of life and work a little for the start of spring, but for now, the whirl of teaching and writing begins again in earnest. But with warmer weather, lighter nights and great music, festival season is just around the corner!

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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.

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.

Things this blog is about…