She wasn’t called Gertie as it happens. Her name was Scrat. Do you remember Scrat, the sabre-toothed squirrel from the Ice Age movies? He never has any luck, seems to always get himself into bother, and is obsessed with hoarding one single acorn.
We named our Scrat after Ice Age Scrat because she was an unlucky but likeable little chicken. When we first collected her, she could barely walk because her feet were completely encased in rock hard chicken poo. She had great big solid balls of the stuff on each of her toes. It took a lot of soaking her feet in warm water to finally get them clean, but then she could run around just as well as the others. Almost.
Scrat was accident prone. She had somehow lost the sight in one eye before we collected her, but we don’t think she’d cottoned on to this fact. She would get all excited and go hurtling around like a headless, well, like a headless chicken, only to crash headfirst into walls or trees or other chickens. If you threw food for her from the wrong side she couldn’t see it, and by the time she’d worked out that she needed to turn around, the other chickens had often scoffed the lot.
She was the very definition of bottom of the pecking order in our little flock, bullied by all the girls, especially Tikka, who was a gobby little madam. Even Kentucky the cockerel wasn’t as enamoured of her as he was the others.
But, after a little settling in period, she laid just as well as any of our ladies, she was soon in great condition, she was curious, she was silly and she loved people. The main reason we picked her up in the first place was because she ran straight to us, so she was easy to catch. (and the dirty feet helped.)
She was always first to greet you in the mornings. She was the one that sussed out where the back door was and would often wander into the kitchen. She was the one standing outside the kitchen window, just in case you felt the urge to throw out a few scraps, or under the bird table in case the wild birds dropped anything. She was the one that didn’t mind being picked up and stroked. She almost lost her head or a toe every time she dived in front of the spade because she’d seen a grub or a worm. She was the one that would come running up to you as soon as you stepped out of the house, head held to one side so she could see you from her good eye.
She was a clutz, she was a danger to herself, she was accident prone, and we never worked out if she was very brave or just very stupid. But her self-preservation skills seemed to be paying off, she trusted us and she was by far our favourite.
Our first five chickens came from a barn and had never stepped outside before. Next we rescued a couple of ex-battery hens, who were in a worse state. But watching them take their first steps on grass and grow in confidence and feathers was an absolute joy.
Times have changed and we don’t keep chickens anymore, we don’t have the lifestyle that would allow us to keep them right now.
But, if you do have the opportunity, the resources and the desire to keep chickens, I can absolutely recommend it. They are such characters with quite individual personalities, and they are a joy to have around. And the eggs are a delicious bonus!
Over the last few years, there has been a push towards teaching Bushcraft, partly as a way to get back to learning about the natural world around us, but also for stag and hen do’s, birthday parties and team building events. Bushcraft is a great escape from the mad, mad, world most of us live in, and a few years back I trained as a Bushcraft Instructor. But before I did, I had to first learn it for myself.
If you don’t know, bushcraft is basically learning to survive and live in the wilds without the everyday trappings of life. This could be in a jungle, on a mountain top or on the coast. In the UK it usually means setting up camp near a water source, building a shelter and providing your own food and clean drinking water. It is different to survival training, where you are taught to use whatever you can find in order to survive. Bushcraft is where you use only the natural landscape around you. I went to my first class with my teenage boys.
After finishing work on a Friday night, packing the car and ferrying younger kids about, we had a 5 minute turn-around before we had to leave the house again. Finally, after almost throwing the satnav and the phones onto the M4, we managed to find the place. We were half an hour late.
Bushcraft courses are often held in ‘out-of-the-way’ places, on private land and away from main roads if possible, so you can really get back to nature. Therefore, they don’t necessarily have an address and can be difficult to find with an outdated sat-nav and a 3-year-old atlas of Great Britain. Good directions, plenty of time and extreme amounts of patience are therefore a must.
We had none of those things.
As we’re late, the instructors had already taken the rest of the group down to the camp site. We arrived in the dark to find an old farmer with a massive torch who showed us where to park and guided us down the hill through the mud. He chatted away genially as we lugged rucksacks through the quagmire, over stones and through pony guarded gates until we reached the first of our instructors.
He took our names, gave us the obligatory health questionnaires and briefed us on health and safety. Then he showed us to our camp site. Everyone is sitting under a massive tarpaulin next to a camp fire with a kettle on it. That’s a good sign. We were warmly welcomed by the other instructors and students alike. They seemed a friendly bunch, and after a brew and a chat we were asked to collect firewood.
Keep the home fires burning.
It’s useful to forage for firewood constantly. The welcoming heat and light from a fire is a godsend and keeping a pot / kettle of water on it for a brew is a must, especially on a cold and wet evening. The fire will provide you with food and drinking water as well as warmth and it’s also an amazing boost to morale if all else goes wrong.
After being introduced to the tools of our new trade, i.e. a knife and a saw, one of the first lessons we are given is designed to tune us in to what is going on around us. We were taken, in the dark, away from the camp and told to sit in the hedges at various points. Weird right? We sat there, in silence, for about 20 minutes watching, listening, smelling, feeling, tasting and becoming generally aware of our surroundings.
This was by far my most favourite part of the weekend and we practised it each evening at dusk. It is the most simple of things to try. You can’t move a muscle, you can’t make a sound and you can’t have any light. You need to become invisible. So you sit and you ‘hone-in’. It takes a few minutes for the wildlife around you to forget that you’re there, but gradually they start to re-emerge.
Afterwards you gather together and discuss what you noticed. The smell of the crushed bracken you were sitting on; the yip of a fox in the distance; a bug crawling across your hand; traffic on a road somewhere off over the hill; owl’s hooting in the woods behind; tiny sounds of scurrying in the undergrowth; the guy next to you breathing; and, best of all, the bat landing a foot in front of you, oblivious to your presence. Beautiful.
Then it was back to camp for a cuppa and, for one night only, we all sleep under the tarpaulin next to the fire. Tomorrow we’ll be building and sleeping in shelters of our own.
It’s the Stackpole Quay car park in Pembrokeshire on a Wednesday in April. There are no other cars in sight, there are no car parking charges, and no other people with dogs. It’s cold and it’s wet but it’s peaceful and beautiful.
Compare that to Bank Holiday Monday at the end of May. The car park is full. Parking attendants are waiting to take your cash, and other attendants are directing traffic into the smallest of spaces, with calls from colleagues to “squash them in, any space they’ll fit”. This is after dodging traffic on the ‘quiet’ country lanes that had been deserted only a week before.
Holidaymakers come to beautiful Pembrokeshire from all over the country, all over the world. The scenery is nothing less than spectacular. It’s warm and sunny and the sea is flat calm. The water is a gorgeous blue-green and crystal clear. The car park leads off to Stackpole Quay itself, and to the coast path in both directions. Barafundle Beach – voted the best in Britain – is just a ten-minute walk away. The Quay itself has benches for sitting and admiring the view – and what a view. So can someone explain this to me please? Why do dozens of people unpack and eat their picnic’s, squashed between parked cars, with other cars for a view, and the sweet smell of exhaust fumes for their fresh air?
They’re not just grabbing a quick sandwich before heading for the beach though. Oh no. These are serious picnickers. Blankets are spread out on the ground, baskets in the centre and deckchairs placed around them. Some are reading books and newspapers, obviously aiming to be there for some time. But why? What’s the point of braving traffic jam’s, dodging car’s on single track lanes, paying exorbitant charges to park, in the best countryside and on a beautiful Bank Holiday Monday, to sit in a hot, dusty, smelly car park to eat your lunch? Are they just too lazy to walk to the nearest picnic table?
What a waste of a glorious day and the most beautiful scenery.
I grew up in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, surrounded by the most beautiful beaches (in my opinion) in the world. As kids, we spent summers swimming, fishing, and building sandcastles, so it’s no surprise that I love the sea and enjoy swimming. Our parents, immigrants from the Midlands, (about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK) spent hours and hundreds of pounds taking us to swimming club, teaching us to swim when we were young, and later, competing and travelling Europe with the club. I was never particularly good, my brother and sister were much better than I was, but I loved swimming and in later life, I took up Octopush and SCUBA diving.
I didn’t do a great deal of swimming for a very long time as an adult, but have always loved the sea and miss it when I’m away. So now that I travel back and forth from Liverpool, I make a point of stopping for a swim on the beach at Aberaeron on my way home. It’s cold, it’s always cold, but it’s invigorating. A friend ran a half marathon on the Wales Long Course Weekend this year, and asked if I would do it with her next year. You know how “Joey doesn’t share food”? Well Tracy doesn’t do running! So I said I might give the swim a go instead. Then we just need to find someone to cycle a hundred miles or so and we have a Long Course team.
With this in mind I checked out Open Water Swimming in Liverpool and found a local watersports centre that opened for open water swimming twice a week. Perfect.
Until I got there. I am such a wuss when it comes to doing anything new. I sat on the dock side watching the swimmers for over half an hour, unable to pluck up the courage to walk into the building. Nothing badass about that, right?
So, did I get in the water? Well, actually yes, I did. The only way to do it in the end was to stop thinking. I got a grip, blanked my mind and just got up and walked. Before I knew it, I was in the reception asking about swimming and taking on board the directions given to me by the very helpful receptionist. I found the hut where I had to pay, she told me how this all worked and where the changing rooms were. Before I knew it I was in my cozzie, at the water’s edge with goggles, hat and float ready to jump in.
A very nice lady was also on the edge waiting to get in. I asked her ‘Can you tell this is my first time?’ She looked like a seasoned pro so I was sure I was in safe hands. She said, ‘Don’t worry about the jellyfish, they don’t sting.’
Jellyfish? What jellyfish? Oh my God, there were hundreds of them. She bent down and scooped one up to show me they don’t sting, before telling me that they actually do have a small sting, but she’s never felt one. Marvellous. Badass Mermaid – my aunt Fanny!
After releasing the jellyfish back into the water, she asked me what was written on my swim hat. When I told her it was the Sport Relief mile that I swam a few years ago, she looked down her nose and said she only swims a minimum of 3km at a time. She’s a long-distance swimmer. Apparently, a mile is not a long distance in the open water swimming world. Well it feels like a bloody long distance to me. In the pool the longest race we ever had was 800 meters and only the really good swimmers ever considered swimming that distance. I was not one of the really good swimmers.
Anyway, enough chit-chat, it was time I got wet. It would have taken an age to gingerly step in bit by bit, so I decided to bite the bullet and jump in. Whoa! That was fresh – about 17 degrees. Goggles on and off I go. And that’s when I put my face in the water and find that it’s black. I stick my head in again and I can’t see anything. It’s completely black. To be fair it looks black from the dockside but I thought it was just the way the shade fell on it. Apparently not. Is it really deep? It found out later that it’s only a little over 2 metres deep, so it’s not that. The walls are black and the sun wasn’t out, maybe that was it. I floated upright for a second and had another look and I could see my pasty legs dangling in the gloom. They had a a green glow about them, like a nuclear power cell from the Simpsons. I kept telling myself that the water is clean. They check it regularly, I know this.
I’m used to the open sea. Usually the sun is shining, the water is blue and crystal clear and you can see the sand beneath your feet. You might even be able to see the odd school of sand eels if you look closely. Have you ever been swimming on a Pembrokeshire beach? You should. But this was so far removed from that. Plus, of course, there were the jellyfish.
They were only small, no bigger than the palm of my hand. They are moon jellyfish, the clear ones with the 4 purple rings on top. When you see them in the black water, pulsing softly, they are beautiful. They really are. But when you’re swimming, trying to ignore them and you accidentally put your hand on one, oh my God. I tried to stop myself squealing every time I did it, but it was tough. They lure you into a false sense of security and then Bam – you’re surrounded. I don’t mind the feel of them as they touch my arms and my legs. They’re soft and gentle and they really don’t sting, but, to my horror, I found they congregate in the shade.
The shaded area is half way around the loop so there is no way back but to keep going. There were so many jellyfish it was literally like trying to swim through jelly. They were bumping against my face, my chest, my arms, my legs. Every stroke was met with a handful of jelly. I am not one to panic in the water, years of playing Octopush and learning to SCUBA dive teaches you to stay calm, but even so, I had moments of real alarm and had to calm myself, take deep breaths and channel Dorey. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” I really was chanting this to myself over and over.
If you don’t swim in the sea, this may sound like a complete nightmare. Believe me it’s really not. You get used to the wildlife, even the eels snaking up the dock walls. Though I must admit, I am definitely starting to see the advantages of wearing a wetsuit.
But the feeling of swimming in cold sea water is so invigorating. It wouldn’t be the same in a wetsuit. Later when you step out of the water and enjoy a well-deserved hot shower and a cup of tea you feel on top of the world. You can do anything. You feel so completely refreshed after a dip in the ocean. When you learn to be one with the jelly’s, the bobbing along with your fellow swimmers is so calming. The salt water does marvellous things to your skin, and you can forget all your woes when you’re floating in the sea. Swimming is great exercise anyway, but swimming outside gets you a dose of vitamin D that you can’t find indoors. But you don’t even need the sun. Swimming in the rain feels weird in a really good way. Usually you’d be running for cover, grabbing wellies and brollies, but when your already wet it really doesn’t matter. Swimming in the rain is joyous. Trust me.
And when you know you can jump back into that freezing cold, black water, filled with jellyfish and enjoy it, that’s when you know you really are a Badass Mermaid.
Just a word of warning. Don’t go swimming in any old body of water. The cold can zap your energy in no time, quarries and reservoirs are dangerous places. Always seek out a certified open water swimming club or venue. Check out the NOWCA.org website for help and advice.