On Saturday I should be travelling to Glen Shiel. Twelve of us were going to pile into a big old lodge on the shore of Loch Duich and have a week in the mountains. I've never been to this part of the Highlands before and couldn't wait to get some big days in on the South Shiel Ridge and the Five Sisters and venture onto Skye. Eating loads of food, drinking lots of wine and just generally having an awesome holiday.
We booked this in the depths of winter and, having had ridiculously good weather on the two previous trips with this group of friends, my biggest concern was that we were owed a washout. Two days after the lockdown started, our holiday was postponed to next year. I'm sure it will be amazing come May 2021, but that seems like an awfully long time away right now, especially with the uncertainty consuming our lives at the moment.
This kind of trip means even more to me because I love hillwalking and live in London. The contrast between the hustle and bustle of the capital and the quiet, stunning, spectacular Highlands could not be starker. I become more enamoured with the Highlands every time I go there, which has only been exaggerated in the five years since I moved to London. The other day I was watching some of the terrific videos from the virtual London Mountain Film Festival. They were inspiring and got me all excited about when I can be in the hills again, but afterwards I was feeling rather sorry for myself. I hadn't had a big day in the mountains for months. Now the thing that I was most looking forward to this year wasn't going ahead, and I had no idea when I would be able to next lace up my walking boots.
I cannot wait to head to the hills when I can, but until then there is still a lot of my corner of London to explore
But of course, I was making the all too easy mistake of losing perspective. In the grand scheme of things, the lack of mountains in my life right now is not important. At least they are not even the slightest bit nearby, so I don't have them taunting me on these stunning days we are having. London offers a lot that the rest of the country lacks. The vast array of restaurants, pubs, theatres, museums and galleries was one of the main draws for me. Now, like many, I am paying a lot of money each month to live in this great city and not being able to make the most of the above. Frustrating, but that's just the way it is and actually, London has a load of other stuff going for it that I didn't fully appreciate before.
In January I bought a bike and started cycling to work, partly to increase my fitness so that I could attempt to keep up with my countryside-dwelling mates on the aforementioned holiday. Now, instead of cycling roughly the same route to work, I am exploring south-west London by bike, finding cute little streets, parks and commons, and comparing the lengths of queues outside supermarkets. Sometimes there seem to be more bicycles on the roads than cars and the other day I cycled 2km along a section of the South Circular (usually a very busy road) before I was overtaken by a motor vehicle. I don't have to go very far to find some hills to get the quads burning and get competitive with myself on those Strava segments. Let's hope that these hill reps on the bike pay off when I return to walking up slightly bigger hills than are found in Wimbledon.
As well as on wheels, I have also been exploring by foot. If I were a poet, I would probably write some sort of ode to Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common. Linked by underpasses beneath the A3, these two patches of land form a space big enough to feel like I'm going on an adventure, yet small enough for me to be able to cover its furthest reaches. After a minute or two of entering, all sounds of traffic are replaced by the tweeting of birds and the sound of my footsteps. Miles and miles of paths snaking around woodland, heathland and grassland. Some paths are wide and well-trodden and good to jog along without having to think about where I am going. Some paths look far more exciting and I end up fighting through brambles and emerge with twigs in my hair. When I first moved here I could quite easily lose my bearings, but over the past few weeks my familiarisation (and appreciation) of this space has grown exponentially. Some parts can get quite busy, but early in the morning I have had Putney Heath virtually to myself. Likewise if it has been raining, when it smells so wonderful and there is the opportunity to find some good quality mud which really excites me, having been raised in Cumbria.
I tend to avoid going down to the river as I imagine it must be a bit stressful, trying to maintain social distancing on the relatively narrow towpath, full of cyclists, runners and walkers. It tends to be that way on pavements too, where I see somebody coming towards me and what follows is often an awkward shuffle, where both step into the road at the same time, and then simultaneously step back onto the pavement. The social distancing rules are now giving Londoners a very valid excuse to keep away from each other. However I do find, on the whole, that there are more smiles and nods between strangers when out and about, although maybe that's because I look for it and appreciate it all the more these days. Something I have had to adapt to since moving here was the general lack of a cheery "Morning!" exchanged when you come across people on a walk or run. I don't want to seem like a weirdo so I have eased off on this, but it is so great when I get that unspoken permission to greet someone and say a word or two about the weather as we pass. Almost as if we were on a jaunt in the fells.
I am taking pride in any sort of achievement at the moment, whether it is a new 5km PB, producing something worthwhile from my sourdough starter, or writing a well-reviewed round for the virtual pub quiz. Ironically, having grown up in the countryside, this is the year when I have most noticed and loved the progression of spring. Everything has become so green! The blossom, the bluebells, the irises and wisteria have brightened my day in every sense of the word. These are all to be found in the woods and quiet streets of London, and I will keep appreciating the nature that surrounds me amongst the cars and buildings. Don't get me wrong, I cannot wait to head to the hills when I can, but until then there is still a lot of my corner of London to explore.