Skip to main content

Offa's Dyke - Day 2:

Music is a gift and it's a privilege to listen to highly skilled and engaging musicians. We wondered what sort of music might be on at the Queen's Head Inn yesterday evening, and we were pleasantly surprised by the quality, versatility and mellow tones of the unnamed guitarist shown below.

He played a selection of classic pop music, some of his own compositions and plenty of folk music. At the end he was joined by two others, a mandolin player (a mandolinian?) and a soprano saxophonist (who confirmed that the only difference between a lawn mower and a saxophone, is the fingering). Actually, joking aside, the sax player was quite virtuosic. ;-)

Music night at the Queen's Head Inn, Monmouth.
Music night at the Queen's Head Inn, Monmouth.

We had an unplanned and unexpectedly lovely evening just sitting back and letting someone else perform a set of toe tapping music in such a friendly and warm atmosphere (the locals were all pleased to make our acquaintance).

After a continental breakfast, at which Neil gave us advice about the next pub at which to eat (and his advice about yesterday evening's Italian restaurant was spot on), we packed our bags and headed for the high street to stock up on picnic supplies. As a result, we were relatively late setting off from Monmouth at 9:30am.

Clearly, we arrived yesterday by the more welcoming direction of travel. Because, here's a photo of the Welsh facing gate house / toll booth / fortified bridge out of which Mary and I left the town.

Leaving Monmouth via the gate house bridge.
Leaving Monmouth via the gate house bridge.

A few miles out of Monmouth were some wooded hills. This, I thought to myself, would be a repeat of yesterday's wonderful forest walking: at the foot of the hill I heard a woodpecker and the birds were singing fortissimo con animato. Here's a recording of the ambient sounds of the woods at the foot of the hills... including the odd tapping noise of the distant woodpecker.

I also took this photo immediately after making the audio recording and have decided to name this place "woodpecker grove".

The grove in the woods with the woodpecker.
The woodpecker grove.

However, the hills took a sharp turn in an upwards direction (as hills are wont to do). It's not so much that the hills were huge, it was just that conditions under foot were very bad and the path was exceptionally steep. Also, at this point early in the walk, my boots and ankles had a disagreement and I'm afraid I suffered the painful consequences. Honestly, how Mary put up with the constant irritated chuntering coming from my direction, like the sound of a grumpy steam locomotive, I will never know. But she did, and I was glad she did, because that steep incline was a struggle for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, despite the pain, difficulty under foot and exceptional effort needed to climb up the steep inclines, we eventually reached the top... as Mary kept insisting we would.

We met a family resting on the bench, who made encouraging sounds about it being downhill all the way out of the forest from this point on. We suspected they were being generous with their encouragement, especially given all the "bloody backpack" type comments coming from my direction.

This was not, actually, the first time we had encouragement on our walk. Yesterday evening, just as we were walking over the welcoming, less fortified bridge into Monmouth, a woman drove past, wound down her window and shouted at Mary, "you go girl!". At that point in the day, Mary probably had a grim look of determination on her face as the hotel was in sight.

In any case, our downward route was a mixed experience. Mary's knees decided to complain, yet we found ourselves surrounded by flowers, the forest and the sounds of nature. Mary's knees also encouraged us to make many stops to make a closer examination of the flora and fauna we might see. This common dog violet being a prime example of Mary's knees' keen interest in nature.

Flowers in the woods.
Flowers in the woods (a common dog violet).

After the ups and downs (literally) of exploring the wooded hills, we felt we deserved elevenses. And so, once we found a suitable spot (perching on a bridge over a stream) we soon made short work of some banana Soreen bars.

Elevenses, sitting on a bridge over a stream.
Elevenses, sitting on a bridge over a stream.

Suitably fuelled up, we pressed on over the rolling countryside (or, as Neil at the Queen's Head described it, gently undulating farmland) and made good progress. Especially now that I had intervened in the argument between my boots and ankles. A quick examination of the lacing situation caused me to reconsider my options. I realised that the boots were simply too helpful in offering unneeded support for my ankles. So I just ignored a bunch of hooks on my boots, that seemed to be causing my discomfort, much to the relief of my ankles.

Our lunchtime picnic was in the middle of a wonderfully tranquil orchard. We sat down, took off our boots and just let ourselves relax into the grass. It was lovely.

Lunch time orchard.
The orchard in which we had our lunch.

Getting up a head of steam after lunch took a bit of time, but we managed it. We also encountered some hills that were less inclined to incline, if you see what I mean. Actually, they were not too much of a challenge to walk and I, true to form, fell into my habit of stomping allegro con brio up such hills as I found my rhythm. Mary has had to deal with such an enthusiastic response to hills for over 25 years, and can usually be found a little way behind me insisting that I slow down and take in the views, dammit.

This photo, is a case in point:

When I see a hill, I tend to stomp my way up it, and Mary is VERY patient with me.

Once again, we lamented the various aches and pains we were coming to know and love. For both of us, mid-afternoon, these took the form of the first, dreaded, blisters. Yet we pushed on through, despite an enforced detour due to an unsafe bridge that took us off the Offa's Dyke route. This took us through several flocks of unamused sheep and lambs. Mary reckons we added at least another couple of miles to our (14.5 mile) route. I think that's the blisters talking!

Eventually, we rejoined the route and could see our destination ahead with tomorrow's challenge, the Brecon Beacons, on the horizon. It was at this point we realised there had only been four kissing gates on today's route.

Looking over the rolling countryside to the Brecon Beacons.
Looking over the rolling countryside to the Brecon Beacons (tomorrow's challenge).

This evening, we have a meal booked at a recommended pub. In fact, it's the only damn pub for miles and miles. Let's see if they've even heard of vegetarians in this part of Wales.

Tomorrow will be a challenging day. It's going to rain, both of us have blisters, and it's going to be tough walking up and over the Black Mountains towards Hay on Wye.

Even the name sounds ominous... surely the Black Mountains belong in Mordor..?

Mary put a positive spin on things: at least we get to try out our new waterproof trousers.


Offa's Dyke - Day 1:

As mentioned in the previous blog post, we want to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in style. Mary suggested we walk Offa's Dyke and I only went ahead and actually booked it all for a twelve day hike. You see, as a devoted husband, I do as I am told!

To say we've been looking forward to this with some trepidation is an understatement. Since early January we've been doing several long practice walks to ensure our equipment behaves, we understand how to pace ourselves and feel what long (20 mile or more) walks feel like.

And today, the moment came for us to start our walk.

We arrived by train at Chepstow, and booked into a guest house called, appropriately enough, The First Hurdle. It happened to have an award winning pizza parlour attached to it, so that was our evening meal sorted. Afterwards we looked at the map and realised that we'd be walking the first mile or so to the starting stone, only to have to retrace our steps to within a short distance of the guest house. Given that day 1 was also the longest day by quite some distance (19.5 miles) we thought we'd give ourselves a head start and walk the first mile in the evening, thus saving us some time in the morning. And so, as the dusk was falling, we trekked south from Chepstow to the starting stone.

The stone in Chepstow, that marks the official start of the Offa's Dyke walk.
The stone in Chepstow, that marks the official start of the Offa's Dyke walk.

We were very excited to find the stone, look across the Severn estuary and take in that we were taking our first steps together on a very very long journey. This was just as we had done so (metaphorically speaking) all those years ago on the day of our wedding.

Proof we made the start.
Mary and I besides the starting stone.

In the morning, we were met at breakfast with a full English (vegetarian) and lots of coffee. That seemed to do the trick and put the fire in our bellies. The helpful waitress took this photo of us, just as we were about to set off.

Setting off from The First Hurdle.
Setting off from The First Hurdle.

Yes dear reader, independently of each other we have purchased pretty much the same GorTex jackets and trousers. We definitely look like the middle aged "Mr. and Mrs." that we so clearly and unwittingly are. :-)

I have on my phone an Ordinance Survey app into which I can load pre-planned GPX files that define our route. I created our GPX routes back in January (based upon the official "Offa's Dyke" guide - sadly Offa is no longer with us to sign such books), and careful testing during our training sessions showed the Ordinance Survey app was the clear winner for ease of use and simplicity.

However, we could have saved ourselves the trouble: a squirrel like ranger, with a love of acorns had clearly marked our route at every turn. Actually, because the Offa's Dyke route is designated a National Trail (and there are several of these in the UK) an acorn logo is used to tell you you're on such a long distance footpath, administered and maintained by Natural England and Natural Resources Wales.

Follow the acorn logo to stay on route.
Follow the acorn logo to stay on the route.

Another unexpectedly common feature of our walk was the large number of kissing gates. I always thought they were so named because, if you were walking with someone, the tradition when passing through such gates, was to share a kiss. I've just looked at the Wikipedia page (linked to above), and it appears I was wrong.


The name comes from the gate merely "kissing" (touching) the inside of the enclosure.

We counted 34 such gates, and we kissed at each one. I'm not going to tell Mary that we've got our "kissing gate" story wrong, just to see if she actually reads this blog post..! I think our reason is far better, and certainly more appropriate given our 25th wedding anniversary. :-)

Lots of kissing gates.
The route contained lots of kissing gates (34 on today's leg, we tried them all).

The weather was wonderful. We had a crisp April day that was full of sunshine, but not unbearable heat. Conditions under foot were good and we were treated to all sorts of wonderful moments where we allowed ourselves to be in nature.

We mostly walked three types of terrain: wood, hills and river banks. I think my favourite was the woodland walking (perhaps because I'm originally from Sherwood Forest).

We were treated to all sorts of sensory stimulation: the smell of wild garlic, the fresh April breeze, the sound of the river Wye along whose banks we walked, and, of course, a lot of birdsong. I made this recording in the woods at the top of the cliffs that overlook Tintern.

Talking of Tintern... for much of the walk we were following in the august footsteps of William Wordsworth, who wrote Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. — Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

Here we are, a few miles above Tintern Abbey.

We tramped the steep and lofty cliff, saw plots of cottage ground in the villages below, and carefully found our way through woods and copses as we travelled over the wild green landscape.

The two of us at the top of the cliff above Tintern Abbey (in the background).
The two of us at the top of the cliff above Tintern Abbey (in the background).

As we descended into Brockweir we started having thoughts of food. Sadly, there wasn't the hoped for pub, cafe or other means of nourishment. Brockweir hasn't a lot going for it apart from the beautiful river Wye and the scenery more than made up for the lack of food and drink!

It was as we walked north along the river bank that today's "incident" took place. At some point, and we're not sure where or how, Mary dropped her mobile phone. We had got about 2 miles north of Brockweir when Mary discovered it was missing. At this point we put on the hand-brake, did a swift 180° turn and stomped in completely the wrong direction while regularly phoning Mary's missing mobile to no avail. After perhaps 1.5 miles the phone was answered by a friendly lady.

To ensure I was easily identified as the husband of the owner of the phone, I described myself as, "a middle age chap, wearing a TUBA t-shirt, with a heavy backpack and staff".

She replied that she was heading north.

At this point, I could see a lady in the distance talking on a phone. So I mentioned I was furiously waving my staff above my head and she replied,

"Oh yes, I see you. I'll be there in 5 minutes."

Happily, Mary was reunited with her phone, but not after adding 3 miles to our total for the day.

I wish I could say this was the only incident on day 1.

But, our naivete about the culinary qualities of Brockweir meant we didn't have anywhere to grab lunch. As a result, we drank all our water (which was rather concerning) and cracked open the emergency supply of chocolate Easter eggs. (Just writing this down, makes me feel stupid, dear reader.) And so the last few miles into Redbrook were more of a struggle than they should have been given our empty tummies and the onset of thirst.

Yet, as with our journey through life, we both enjoyed ourselves during the good times (for instance, walking in the woods), and supported and encouraged each other when faced with a challenge. I can happily report both Mary and I, on different occasions, helped the other overcome their moaning. ;-)

Here's Mary, descending into Redbrook with Monmouth in the distance.

Into the Wye valley and Monmouth.
Into the Wye valley and on towards Monmouth.

Happily, Redbrook had a pub.

Unhappily, we were too late for food.

However, I think I consumed the world's best pint of bitter and packet of salt and vinegar crisps whilst in that drinking establishment... or at least, that's how it felt, and after 20 minutes of resting and enjoying our repast, we creaked back into gear for the final push to Monmouth.

When we arrived at the Queen's Head Inn we were cheerfully greeted by Neil, the publican, who made us feel very welcome and recommended a fantastic Italian restaurant for our evening meal. I'm not sure what the waiters made of us, but I think we set some sort of speed-of-eating record in their restaurant, because we woofed down some amazing, fresh and locally sourced Italian cuisine.

As I write this post, below us we hear live music from the bar, and Mary and I will soon descend for a final drink, and listen to the music for a while before a well deserved sleep.

Finally, here's a map of the route we covered today. We're not quite sure how far we actually walked, given the unplanned repeat of the river walk, but we think we managed somewhere north of 22 miles.

Tomorrow we head to Llangattock Lingoed, which is, as far as we can tell, completely in the middle of nowhere. As a result, we've spied a good bakery in Monmouth and will stock up with picnic provisions for tomorrow and the day after (which will end in Hay-on-Wye).

Onwards! :-)

Wedding Anniversary Plans

Mary and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary on the 2nd of August this year.

Our wedding, 2nd August 1997 at Bourton Manor, Shropshire.
Our wedding, 2nd August 1997 at Bourton Manor, Shropshire.

I first encountered Mary late on an autumnal Friday afternoon in the library of the Royal College of Music. Mary and I were the only two people in the Donaldson Room, a study area with large oak desks, and she happened to be sat opposite me. I think there was an immediate attraction because we kept surreptitiously looking at each other. When I idly chewed my pen to try to hide that I was really checking her out, she caught my eye and smiled at me. I involuntarily bit down on my pen in panicked shyness (I'd been found out!) and split the pen lid while also chipping the corner of my front tooth. I soon fled in embarrassment. Later, I felt the roughness where my tooth had chipped and reflected that it would be a permanent reminder of that pretty girl in the library. For the rest of my life, when I felt the roughness on my tooth, I'd ask myself "I wonder who she was?".

It didn't take long for me to find out.

The following Wednesday, just after lunch, (yes, I have all the dates, times and places recorded in my diary of the time) I returned to the Donaldson Room with a buddy only to find Mary sat at a desk with her friend and fellow cellist, Ellen. I sat down at the opposite end of their table (realising I'd found the pretty girl again) and soon found they were not working on an academic assignment, but goofing around playing the game of hang man.

Mary had a unique tactic... whereas most people do something sensible like start with the vowels or other common letters (to help figure out the skeleton or shape of the word), Mary used the least expected letters. She started games with "X", followed by "Q", then "W" or "Z".

I found this hilarious and, after watching her play for a few minutes, couldn't resist to interrupt and say,

    "You really have no idea how to play hang man, do you?"

    "Oh yes I do. I'm just choosing to play it like this", was her mock-offended response.

We struck up a conversation, our friends (bored of our flirting) soon left us in peace and we spent the afternoon chatting. We talked about all sorts: science, philosophy, plants, gardens, music, books and many other things. All too soon Mary noticed the time ~ it was 5pm and we had spent three hours in deep joyful conversation. Time just flew by, but Mary was late for a rehearsal.

I'll never forget how we parted.

    "I'm afraid I'm going to have to go to my rehearsal," she said, "but I'd much rather be talking with you."

That was it.

Over the following weeks and months we got to know each other, talked a LOT and eventually shared our true feelings for each other in the spring. It didn't take much longer for us both to realise we'd found our life-long soulmate and by the end of the year we were announcing our engagement. A couple of years later, only a few weeks after Mary graduated from the RCM, we were married. She was 22, I was 23 and we've been an "us" ever since.

Meeting Mary was the most important moment in my life. Living life's journey with Mary has been my life's greatest privilege and full of wonderful moments - the most important highlights being the arrival and growth of our three beautiful children, Penelope, Sam and William.

A serious family selfie from 2018.
A serious family selfie from 2018.

To celebrate 25 years of sharing our journey through life together, Mary and I have decided to make another (symbolic) journey together. We're going to walk over 170 miles, during the Easter holidays, along Offa's Dyke, a 1300 year old earthwork barrier created by Offa, king of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Nobody knows why the dyke was built, but the modern Welsh/English border roughly follows its path and it passes through some of the most beautiful parts of Wales and England.

We'll start in the south and walk an average of 15 miles a day, staying in bed-and-breakfasts or hotels along the way. It being April we expect fresh showers, but hope for sun to encourage spring flowers.

We're not the first to have had the idea of an April journey:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

We expect our adventure to take us 12 days.

Over the coming weekends we'll spend our time training by rambling similar daily distances in the rolling Northamptonshire countryside that surrounds Towcester. We'll also blog each day of the journey as a memento of our progress - we both suspect our adventure along Offa's Dyke will be something we'll want to remember.

If you're at a loose end in the weekends before Easter, get in touch, come visit and share a walk with us as we prepare... we forgot to mention there are many wonderful pubs on our local rambles, and we'd love to share their hospitality with any of our friends who happen to be passing by.

Happy new year for 2022 and here's hoping you find fulfilment and flourish over the coming 12 months.

Chicken chicken chicken

A large part of my day job involves reading and writing what folks optimistically call "technical documentation". It's usually about as much fun as sticking forks in one's eyes, rubbing a cheese grater up and down one's nose or reading the complete unabridged works of Ayn Rand.

Happily, there are examples of great technical documentation (the Django project immediately springs to mind, and the wonderful folks at Write the Docs do amazing work in this space). But for every example of great documentation, there are many more incomprehensible, incomplete or incoherent tomes where knowledge goes to die.

Joking aside, quality is clearly a subjective judgement.

It's easy to make innocuous claims like, "good technical writing is clear, coherent and engaging; bad documentation is the opposite ~ complicated, chaotic and opaque". Yet trying to pin down terms like "clear", "coherent" or "engaging" is a slippery exercise and, ultimately, a matter of personal taste.

A more nuanced approach would say diversity of voices and perspectives is at play here, and it's important to always keep this in mind. Every reader and writer comes to documentation from their own unique point of view and lived experience. That's why pointing out examples of allegedly poor documentation or claiming there is a "one true way" to write it is unhelpful. It's disrespectful of difference, arrogantly presumptuous and there are more supportive and open minded ways to engage when (inevitable) difficulties arise.

For instance, feedback that is constructive (offered from a desire to help), compassionate (aware of another's feelings) and unambigous (specific and actionable) can highlight unintended misunderstanding[edit]. It acknowledges there is a difficulty of some sort, but does so in a way that encourages writers to reflect, refine and revise their work. It's also perfectly reasonable for the writer to decline to change things: perhaps you are not the intended audience, they simply don't have the time (many docs written for open source projects are created by volunteers), or they disagree with you and stand by their work.

Let many flowers bloom!

If I'm honest, I love to read (even stuff I find difficult or disagreeable ~ like Ayn Rand). It is a connection with others, a source of creative stimulation and an enlargement of my world. I read because I am curious to reach out beyond myself and into the lives of others. I love the change and growth this brings. I also love to write - it is an opportunity for self reflection, a source of consolation, an invitation to connect, and a rewarding skill to develop and practice.

That's why I write this blog: I enjoy the art of writing.

The artistry involved in writing is something to celebrate, cherish and promote. Sadly, and far too often, a focus on form, structure or process is held up as the best approach to writing technical documentation. Artistry, taste or style are hardly mentioned, if at all.

Most documentation looks like what most people think documentation should look like. There are good reasons why documentation is often organised in the way that it is, but to follow these conventions is not enough. Going through the motions in a structural sense or following a certain form or process is no guarantee of "quality" (whatever that might mean).

A wonderful and humorous example of this is Doug Zongker's "Chicken chicken chicken".

Originally created in the form of an academic paper, and then delivered in the form of a typical academic conference presentation, Doug created two parodies that focus on process, form and structure at the expense of meaningful content:

(I love how the audience all sound like chickens because they're laughing so hard.)

Doug's work got me wondering, would the "chicken" effect work for the tropes and conventions of a software project? I'm pleased to report that it does. It even works for the source code, Git repository and the packaging metadata too.

The "chicken" code highlights what a deeply problematic oversight this focus on form, structure and process is for technical documentation. Imagine if teaching the composition of poetry only dealt with structure, rhyme or rhythm at the expense of meaning, metaphor, story-telling, pacing, symbolism and expression.

We'd end up with limericks like this:

Chicken chicken chicken chicken,
Chicken chicken chicken chicken,
    Chicken chicken chick,
    Chicken chicken chick,
Chicken chicken chicken chicken.

Why this interest in technical documentation?

I'm in the midst of a writing marathon for some of my personal projects (Mu and CodeGrades). I'm enjoying the opportunity to reflect upon, and work both inside and outside, the usual conventions for technical documentation. I can't help but wonder that process, form and structure are best thought of as the servants of an authentic expression of thoughts, feelings and values through one's own authorial voice to make a space for the reader to think, engage and learn. If I am ever disatisfied with my output, it's usually because I've forgotten this (and I just had to write this blog post to say so!).

As always with any of my work, I welcome constructive, compassionate and unambiguous feedback. :-)

EDIT (18th Nov 2021): Thank you to the person (who wishes to remain anonymous) who reached out to point out that, "constructive, compassionate and unambigous", are also slippery terms. I've added clarifications in brackets and would especially like to point out that they embodied the very best of constructive, compassionate and unambiguous feedback in their correspondence with me. :-) Return to text.

On a Scottish Island

My wife's family have the lease for a 19th century cottage on a small, otherwise uninhabited, Scottish island. Every year, since Mary and I first became an item, I have returned to the island for an off-the-grid retreat of rest, recuperation and reflection.

There are two ways to get onto the island: by boat during high tide, or by walking over two miles of mudflats at low tide.

The island viewed from the mudflats
The island viewed from the mudflats.

Renovating the cottage is my in-law's retirement project and, from time to time, we and other members of the extended family have helped in various ways (most recently my family and I carried more than 2000 slate tiles and other roofing material up the hill from the beach so the roof could be fully restored by a couple of friendly local builders).

It's a small traditional whitewashed cottage with two bedrooms, a sitting room, a kitchen and a bathroom. Running water is pumped into cisterns from an ancient well, there is no electricity except that provided intermittently by a generator and the bathroom is unplumbed with a compost toilet and wash basin.

Outside the cottage an old barn is used for storage and contains a sheltered outdoor room called the "Breeze Inn". In the garden are various home-made seats around a campfire, a vegetable plot and, to one side, an improvised "hot tub" made from a large ancient Victorian bath (what a wonderful view!). A fence secures the property from the island's only other occupants: a herd of sheep.

We're free to roam and, while the island is not very big, it offers a remarkable number of things to do.

Looking back towards the mainland from the mudflats
Looking back towards the mainland from the mudflats.

The first thing to do, as always, is to get to the island.

This year we walked the mudflats and carried our clothes, sleeping bags and a generous number of books in rucksacks. This has always felt to me like a ritual of transformation: by crossing the mud we're leaving the real world and all its interruptions, demands and busy-ness and arriving in a sanctuary of calm, a refuge for reflection and an undisturbed natural space.

Walking the mudflats allows me to exercise more than just my legs. My senses are stimulated too. The short walk from the car park to the slipway is along a verdant tree-lined dappled road. We're accompanied by the distant laughter of gulls, the piping of oyster catchers and bubbling whistle of curlews. The air is full of the smell of sweet honeysuckle with an undercurrent of the salty twang of seaweed. Once barefoot on the mudflats, walking is a warm, wet, rhythmic sensation that feels like a gentle massage.

Sometimes we talk.

Sometimes we sing.

Often we just lose ourselves in silent reflection.

It feels important to take in this liminal time: a threshold and transitory in-between space for adjusting to and from island life.

The sky reflected in the water on the mudflats
The sky reflected in the water on the mudflats.

The mudflats are not only (literally) a place of reflection, but also an active and dynamic world. Birds swoop in to explore the gifts swept in by the tide and we're not the only ones making journeys: if you look closely, winkles make tracks over a lunar like landscape.

Who knows where they're off to..?

We're not the only ones journeying on the mudflats
We're not the only ones journeying on the mudflats.

At the end of the mudflats is a long mussel bed called the "rack". Sliding into sandals protects feet from the sharp rocks and mussels that crackle and pop when trodden on. To the west of the rack are some medieval fish pools constructed by monks from a nearby abbey. Apparently they used the island as a hermitage.

When the tide is in and the rack is submerged, we're isolated from the mainland and alone.

The partially submerged mussel bed called the rack
The partially submerged mussel bed called the rack.

The tide and other natural rhythms of the place soon influence the pace of life.

The change of the tide is a barely perceptible but constant reminder that, as Heraclitus would put it, "everything flows" (πάντα ῥεῖ). Yet, while the tide is a rhythmic constant, each tide brings about a new world: new flotsam and jetsam emerge from the waves, the sea itself changes colour, tone and mood, and the shallow river on the mudflats changes course. Once again Heraclitus provides a suitably watery aphorism, "on those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow" (ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμβαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ).

Such a steady tempo of change in the external world leaves time and space to feel and observe changes within, reflect and simply be with oneself.

To help with this process I switch off my mobile phone and don't wear a watch ~ preferring to synchronise myself with the world through the ambient events of island life: passing boats, swimming in the sea, playing games, exploration of the island, reading and, of course, the weather.

The island has a microclimate. It might be raining torrents on the mainland, but the island is still bathed in sunshine. The sky is often a turbulent and dramatic looking place and another source of steady rhythmic change.

Often we're richly rewarded simply by looking up.

A double rainbow over the cottage
A double rainbow over the cottage.

Of course, the sunrise and sunset always act as momentous cadences in the day. Everything feels like it is paying attention during these marvellous transitions. Memories of these times act as souvenirs to help recall the feeling of being on the island (especially when frustrated by life back on the mainland).

Sunset over the mainland
Sunset over the mainland.

At the bottom of the hill, directly below the cottage is a sandy beach. We often swim there when the sea makes it safe to do so.

As a prominent sign in the cottage's kitchen declares, "by the sea, all worries wash away", and swimming in the sea is another way of immersing oneself in nature. It's certainly very cold, but this soon passes and you become sensitive to swells and waves while paying close attention to the depth or closeness of jellyfish.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter how you occupy yourself on the island. As my father-in-law commented, "only the seagulls are here to complain, so don't worry". I'd add that seagulls always sound as if they're complaining, so it becomes very easy to ignore them!

The beach
The beach.

The shore around the island is another source of stimulation.

For many years, and allegedly within living memory, the island was used by smugglers. There are many caves of various sizes and some of the larger ones even have shelves cut into the rock. They also make wonderful hiding places for games of hide-and-seek with younger members of the family.

But the caves are not just a hiding place for children. Birds, bats and even the odd marten have been observed to emerge from their depths.

A view from one of the many caves
A view from one of the many caves.

The microcosms that are rock pools are another source of fascination.

Taking the time to observe them requires patience but is often rewarded. A large lumbering human being who casts a shadow inevitably causes the creatures in such pools to skedaddle. But quiet repose results in the gradual emergence of the inhabitants and life resumes.

It's a sort of people watching, but in the wholly alien world of plump red anemones filtering whatever floats by, crabs scuttling around the place as if they're late for an important office meeting, the ponderously peripatetic quests of the many different sized winkles and the nervous darting of small fish.

When I stand up and make my presence known, it's as if the inhabitants of the pools are playing Grandmother's Footsteps (as we do back in the cottage garden)... everything suddenly stops, statue like, as if nobody wants to be noticed making a move.

A typical rock pool
A typical rock pool.

The rocky intertidal zone is also full of hidden treasure.

Closer to the sea one finds all sorts of interesting smelling seaweed and I often wonder (but always forget to try) if these fruits of the sea are edible and suitable for cooking. When I once mentioned this to the elderly fisherman who used to be the lighthouse keeper on the island, he told me the only use he'd have for the seaweed was as compost for his garden.

The rocks and pebbles are an endless source of interest. Often it's fun to play target practice and throw or skim stones. Other times one finds pebbles that have been polished in such a way that an interesting shape or colour is revealed. Sometimes we find strange flotsam or jetsam stuck in the rocks: wood collected for the fire, a deflated football, bones from a sheep, an old trainer or a dead gull are typical finds.

The flinty smell of the rocks, the sounds of birds and waves as well as the need to retain balance while carefully jumping from rock to rock mean there's a certain amount of relaxed stimulation and attention required to navigate this zone of the island - itself a rather wonderful state of mind to inhabit.

The rocky intertidal zone
The rocky intertidal zone.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the island's most surprising inhabitant: an elephant.

The elephant
The elephant.

You should be able to make out Mary at the end of the elephant's trunk, and I hope you get a sense of the size and scale of this wonderful mossy mammoth. Many a time has been spent imagining ourselves as Scottish mahouts (McHouts?) journeying out of the sea on the back of such a craggy beast.

The elephant is also a favourite location for clues during many of the riddle based treasure hunts we play with younger members of the family...

My backside is washed twice a day,
With my tail playing in the spray,
  It's certainly not junk,
  Hiding at the end of my trunk,
Could it be a clue? Yes! Hooray!

Now that our own children are older I'm pleased to say the island still retains its magic for them. Projects, games and exploration are the order of the day. It's a special place for all of us (which makes it all the more special, because it is a shared specialness private to our family).

Here we are on the island last week, along with our long suffering, faithful and ever patient dog, Burt.

Me and my family on the island
Me and my family on the island.

(All photographs were taken by the author in the week immediately prior to the publication of this post.)