Away

After a lifetime of living in the city, I have finally made it back to where I started, to where we all started, really: to a natural environment. At least an environment where the tree to concrete ratio is correctly weighted to the former. Last Monday I moved to Scotland to the northwest of Glasgow on the Cowal peninsula, for the foreseeable future. I left at five in the morning, and although this was just because my train was at 0530, it felt as if I was slipping away in the dead of night to make my departure unnoticed and definite. In other words, I made my escape. In just a week I have dived from one extreme to the other, spending almost the entire day from dawn till dusk outside, either battling strong winds and torrential rain or enjoying the warmth of the Sun on my face and the cool breeze, but always being awestruck by the wildness and beauty of my surroundings.

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I am living and working on the grounds of an old estate that is now the Benmore outdoor centre. My role is trainee instructor, which means I am gathering qualifications that allow me to teach things like rock climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, sailing and mountaineering (which involves camp craft, orienteering and group management). In return I am shadowing the actual instructors working here, which in turn gives me work experience.

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The house on the grounds is the actual centre, but I am living in a tiny stone cottage (the old groundskeeper’s lodge) called Riverside. It is aptly named, as the River Echaig runs right past it, and I can hear its quick rushing from my bed. The grounds themselves, however, have been transformed into a botanical gardens, including plants and trees from all over the world. The upshot of my house’s location and the presence of the gardens is that my commute to work is a seven minute walk through an avenue of 155-year old giant redwoods from California. I am constantly amazed by their enormity (the largest is 55 metres tall), but not as much as the fact that giant redwoods get to be around 5,000 years old, making the ones here at Benmore mere babies (they are the equivalent of a 2.5-year old human).

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Red squirrels scamper around, running up and down these gentle giants, and a rich variety of flowering plants decorate the ground as far as the eye can see. In the background tower the surrounding hills, silently protecting the area with their variously forested or open bulk. The weather will change about eight times in an hour, but even in the frequent rain, the lush abundance of this place is wonderful, and I had no idea there was such a high number of shades of green.

One of my aims whilst I am here is to develop something of a working knowledge of the flora that’s around me. I’ve already picked up two things. One is wood sorrel, which is related to and looks like clover, but instead has heart-shaped leaves with no white marking, and a reddish stem towards the bottom. They grow in moss and tree bark as opposed to grass, and unlike the clover, they are edible! The taste is delicious: sweet and sharp, exactly like sour apple. The other is sphagnum moss (a genus containing 380 species), a peaty, star-shaped moss that constitutes the majority of bogs. It is notable for its ability to hold 10 times its own weight in water, and its anti-septic properties. If, for the sake of argument, you found yourself injured in the backcountry, crushing up the moss and applying it to any open wounds would clean them and prevent infection. This is especially useful in the very areas where this moss is found, where conditions are wet, muddy and insect-filled.

To speed this process up, I am trying to get an introduction with an 80-year old lady called Thea that I have heard a few things about. She reportedly goes ice-climbing in order to forage the higher slopes and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the plants of the UK. I am hoping she will be able to teach me some things, and in return she apparently asks for help harvesting her field, making bonfires and providing company for the occasional barbecue. It sounds like a pretty good deal.

Otherwise I will be climbing outdoors, hiking, kayaking and biking as much as possible. Visitors are always welcome.

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