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    Ideals and Purpose

    Ideals and Purpose

    I struggle with starting. Mainly, because I’m great at imagining the wonderful, perfect end result. I get so overwhelmed by that, that I can’t see where to begin! The pressure to make anything I do into something absolutely perfect is intense, and so, usually, I just don’t start at all.

    A girl with brown hair sat on the edge of a rocky outcrop, with a cloudy forest stretched out in front of here. There is a hat on the rock beside her and she wears a white and red checked shirt.

    The problem is, the end result I’m imagining is so HUGE and full of THINGS and very probably the end result of at least a decade of hard work. In letting myself colour in that end result, I miss out on the filling in, on the journey of getting there. All I can see is a huge wall, with this shiny thing at the very top and no way to get up there. I’ve done this with a lot of things, and one of those things is this here little blog.

    The Blog and Perfectionism

    Ahhhh, this blog! I registered it back in 2021, and I can’t believe how fast that time has gone. I’ve dithered about and just got so overwhelmed with the possibility, with the ideas, with trying to figure out just what to write about that I’ve basically done nothing, save a few occasional posts – and thank you if you’ve read any of them! Cutting myself a little slack, it’s been a wibbly few years, and I think this small internet space has reflected that – wibbly for sure!

    I wanted it to be perfect, straight away. But I’m actually coming around to realise, there is no end result. There is no ‘finished’. It’s a reflection of me, wibbliness and all – and that in itself is perfect, right now. I need this space to come to, to dust off the virtual cobwebs hanging around the pages, to just take a breath and read a bit and chat a bit and drink tea and think. And I hope that’s what it will offer for you, too.

    The re-re-re-introduction

    a girl is sipping a steaming cup of tea, partly illuminated by a low sun shining through a window.

    A place of tea, cushions and cobwebs. A cosy, welcoming escape from the hubbub and shoutiness of the internet. Cats, birds, and the occasional guinea pig. Cake! Of course cake. Seasons and planting and feet in the mud. The plan is no plan, the plan is realignment, the plan is settling into ourselves. Acceptance and biscuits. Existence. Breathing out. Room for all.

    Dare I say a plan?

    This year is writing this blog into existence. I’m quite hoping that as the words become more solid, a bit of me will, too. Lofty expectations! But a sneaking suspicion that that might just be the right way to go. A bit of fun along the way. A lot of cake crumbs. Here’s to daring! Slowly. With tea.

    Sal x


    Pinterest image. Text reads Ideals, purpose and a reintroduction. Image is of green mountains stretching into the distance.

  • Blog

    New Years and Expectations

    New Years and Expectations

    I thought it would be easier to write this first post of 2024, but I’ve started and deleted it so many times I’ve lost count. I wanted to catch up a little with my word for the year, which this year is ‘strengthening’, but instead my mind is pulled in a million different directions with all that I could say, all that I want to somehow give voice to but find hard to even translate into anything solid, let alone in a form to write about. Half-thoughts, gut feelings, little wisps of fleeting, intense images, experience in a millisecond, swirling around my brain. So, I thought I’d try and get down some of the things I’m thinking of for the coming year, and hope that it makes some kind of sense!

     

    Happy New Phhhhh

    I always feel a little bit of a fraud around New Year. I generally like to settle into the ebb and flow of seasons, feeling the year eke out sometime around the end of October, then thinking ahead and planting some little idea seeds to nurture and wait in the dark months. But of course, it’s hard to avoid the whole New Year thing in January. I try to keep my little seeds in mind, but inevitably get swept up in the whole rush of energy around this time of year. People being new and shiny and sharing their big ideas and all they achieved the past year. I compare myself, and always feel lacking.

    New Years eve leaves me feeling deflated – it always has, even when I was young. Everyone else seemed to be doing so much better, have achieved so much more. It was always a time where I looked back and was saddened by how I felt myself in comparison to everyone else. Even though I quite like my little life, and have a lot of things I want to explore in the coming months, that one evening still gets me! So this year, I gave up, went to bed, and humph-ed myself into a disjointed sleep.

     

    A week into 2024

    Now, a week into the new year, things seem to be settling again. Those little seeds I planted in my mind back in October are beginning to raise their heads, along with the daffodil bulbs emerging from the ground outside. This is where I feel comfortable, not pulled this way and that by the excess of energy and expectation January inevitably brings.

    Back then, as I chose my word for this year, strengthening, I wasn’t too sure what that would look like over the coming months. But leaving my brain to work on it over these darker days is starting to bring some clarity. Trust in the process – it always works out, and it all falls into place, year after year. Now, I’m starting to notice the areas where I’d like to work as the months lighten. As the bulbs stir and the branches begin to bud, a bit of clarity starts to shine from those dark days. So this is what I’m sort-of-planning, for the coming months!

     

    What I’m doing this year: Strengthening

    I spent the last year in a sort of stasis. A processing year, from the tumult that was 2022. The last months have been spent trying to make sense, letting things settle, working through bereavement, discovery, and a high university workload. My word last year was regeneration, and although it wrung me out, I definitely feel new, somehow. I learned a lot. Now is the time to explore what I learned and build on that, to make some sort of base for the years ahead.

     

    Strengthening self

    In 2022, I found out I have ADHD. My whole life suddenly fell into place, but it was a huge thing to process. Too huge. Although a lot made sense, I didn’t have the capacity to start to make the changes my brain needed to begin to thrive. That grief for all the years thinking I was useless, the sadness for a younger me who didn’t understand why she never really fit in, the frustration of ‘what if’. This year, I’m excited to strengthen my sense of self, whatever that is. I don’t really know, I’ve spent so many years being someone else! I’m excited to see who emerges over the coming months. It sounds like fun!

     

    Strengthening health

    Chronic illness, mental health and general intense life happenings have meant I’ve lost a lot of fitness over the last few years. It’s not been the right time to work on that, but I feel that now is becoming the right time. I won’t talk about this much, I don’t think – there’s a lot for me to process and a lot of comparison to my previous self, but safe to say, a bit of wandering, a bit of outdoors-ing, one foot in front of the other – that all sounds like good stuff to look forward to in the coming months.

    I want to make sure I have enough energy to look after my mental and physical health, work on that process of self-discovery, and begin to give my body a bit of respite and healing, as much as I can do. I’d like to do a big walk (big for me, anyway) and get back into wild camping, so increasing my ability to be able to achieve this is something that will take a while to work from, as I’m coming from literally a standing (or lying!) start. We begin, again and again and again.

     

    Strengthening work

    Last year, I spent way too much time on my phone, something I’ll talk about in coming weeks. Instead of that, this year I want to reframe how I spend my time and energy – and using those lost hours spent scrolling for something productive sounds brilliant. I put way too much energy into my university work last year, to the point that I had nothing left to give. I said yes to too many projects and ended up resenting the whole thing.

    Strengthening means building a solid base from which to give my best, and to make sure I have enough energy to direct into all aspects of my work, and to look into the future. So I’m dialling down the university projects to an important few, giving myself time to actually do some work, and also dialling up the importance of this blog. I’ve sadly neglected it since its inception, too confused by big ideas and no idea how to prioritise anything to take it forwards. So, I’ll be spending a lot more time here in 2024!

     

    Looking forward

    I’m so excited to spend more time on the blog. I’m also really looking forward to the coming months of discovery and finding my own little path through this life – I feel like I’ve been walking just a little way off it for the last 40 years!

    I hope you’ve had a good start to the new year, whenever it feels right to celebrate it (or not). Do you make resolutions or have a word of the year? If, like me, you’ve had some life events to process, what helps you with that?

    I’m looking forward to this process of beginning, again. At age 40, it seems it’s been a long time coming. But hopefully, now is the time for exploration, experience, and yes, some gentle, tentative strengthening. We’ve got this!

    Sal 🙂


    Image for pinterest: text reads new year's themes - no resolutions. Background picture is of a climbing flower against a green painted wall.

  • Blog

    Five things to do on a winter’s evening

    Five things to do on a winter’s evening

    hands holding an open book

    The clocks have gone back, and like many a Brit, I’m a bit discombobulated by the hour’s shift back to GMT. “The nights are pulling in” I mumble to myself way too frequently, drawing the curtains at an uncomfortably early hour.

    I’m not a big telly person, although the winter comfort shows are rolling out (Strictly, Bake Off, etc). They’re not really my bag, although give me a documentary about volcanoes or space or a weird plant and I’m happy! My guilty pleasure is Kirsty’s Handmade Christmas. It must be almost time for that to come on again!

    I find this time of year is also a perfect time for a bit of reflection, planning ahead for the future, which is also an excuse to find a lovely notebook to do so, and probably a cup of tea, and of course a posh pen, and some biscuits…

    Anyway, I digress. Any excuse for a notebook! Yearly review aside, I sometime find the darker evenings a bit cloying. I’m a summer person and although I’m trying hard to enjoy the darker nights as much as the long hot days (can you tell I’m not finding much success?!) I need a bit of a push to find things to do that aren’t zoning out in front of the tv or scrolling on my phone. So, here are five things to do on a winter’s evening, now the darker months are here.

    1: Play a board game

    Our favourite game at the moment is Lost Cities. It’s a perfect 2 player game, involving some strategy, some luck, and a lot of crossing your fingers! We’ve become quite competitive – and although I invariably lose I really enjoy this game and the artwork on the cards – each ‘colour’ is an adventure, and you complete the adventure by laying down cards in order. The problem being, your competitor may also be trying to go on the same adventure! Great fun, pretty quick to play a round, and seriously addictive.

    2: Make an autumn collage

    I’ve loved making collages from leaves recently, for no other reason than to just play around with the colours and textures. You can glue them down, or just arrange things in pretty patterns for a mindful way to pass the time. I’ve collected feathers, leaves, twigs, stones, grasses – anything will do! I can spend a good hour or so just arranging things in colour order, or trying to make a picture. I even made a short stop-motion animation with a free app on my phone, called Stop Motion Studio (I think there’s a paid version too, but I just used the free one and it was great!).

    Another thing I really enjoy is making collage paper. I use a large sheet of paper, then cover it in bright colours, glitter, paint, crayons, anything. Once it’s dry, I cut it into shapes, and use those for collage. It’s really satisfying to just make a big crazy mess on the paper, then use it later! You could do different themes – make a blue one and a orange or yellow one, then make a beach scene (not strictly an autumn collage, I know) once they’re all dried and cut up. Or green and brown for a forest!

    3: Get lost in a book

    I’ve been trying to intersperse my university reading with some escapist fiction and have been enjoying V.E Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue as a book that has really transported me to another time and place! I’ve never read V.E Schwab before but am now determined to work my way through all of their books. I challenged myself to try and pick up books in different genres than I am used to reading (love a historical fiction) so am trying out some more sci-fi and fantasy as it’s a genre I’ve never really considered. My brother is big into sci-fi and has recommended some great reads – I particularly enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s ‘Seveneves’, and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ‘Children of Time’ trilogy. Fully recommend trying a book genre you don’t think you’re into as a way to pass the dark evenings!

    4: Try a craft kit

    I quite like the idea of trying new things, but without the commitment of having to buy a lot of new materials, or do that thing where I expect to be amazing at something right away and am invariably disappointed when I am not. Trying a craft kit overcomes both of these problems by only giving you what you need for the project, and including instructions to lessen the chances of veering wildly off-piste. Craft kits are a great way to pass some time and end up with something that you’ve made at the end of it – I’ve done a few needlefelt things (the repeated stabbing is rather therapeutic!) and it’s always nice to have that “I made that” feeling.

    5: Make a playlist

    I LOVE making playlists. If you follow my Spotify, I have a few public ones (I also like making pictures for them) and following the rabbit hole in search of the perfect song is guaranteed to while away the hours. I always end up finding a ‘perfect seam’ of songs (like song mining!) and turning the volume up to dance around like a fool. I think the lure of streaming services is that you can share your playlist pretty much immediately with whoever you want, although the tactile touch of a mixtape or cd is hard to beat (ahhh nostalgia). I spend hours curating playlists, and now you can collaborate on them, that’s a whole new dimension. Just losing yourself in music for a bit, transporting yourself to a memory, a sunny holiday, a night out, your old favourite band, a place in time… the perfect way to spend a cold evening. If you make a playlist I’d love to hear it!

    Now the evenings are longer and darker, how you spend them? I’m not a huge fan of autumn or winter – I find the endless UK grey quite challenging, and often end up mindlessly scrolling to just pass the time. Having a set ‘go-to’ list of things to do can help distract me before I fall into the trap of Instagram.

    Have you picked up any crafts over the winter months? Do you have a favourite board game? I’d love to hear any recommendations below! 🙂


    pinterest image. Hands holding a book open. Text reads '5 things to do on a winter's evening'.

  • Blog,  Day to Day

    October Review and Reset

    October Review and Reset

    October is almost over. The brighter days turn to grey and mist, to dark evenings and the brief flare of red, gold and brown autumnal leaves. It’s the time to reflect, to look back over the past year and take stock of all that has happened.

    In the wheel of the year, the end of October (or around the end of April in the Southern hemisphere), Samhain is seen as the end of the harvest season, and the start of winter. I feel that natural winding down of the energy of summer is a perfect time to review, and take the time to plant new ideas, new seeds to nestle down in the dark of winter, waiting to come to fruition in the spring. I find the January new year quite jarring – a forced push, in the middle of winter here in the Northern hemisphere, when all else is resting. It’s nice to align with a different timeline, one that fits me, that follows the ebb and flow of the natural world.

    You don’t have to follow a particular calendar, to celebrate a certain festival, to begin to wind down and review around this time. It’s the perfect time to take stock of where you are before January, to re-prioritise if needed, to let go or take on board. If you’d like to give it a go, here’s what I do – you can do what feels right for you, but it might give you a few ideas.

    Ideas for your October Review and Reset
    Creating a theme

    I have one theme for the year, rather than resolutions. I think of all the ways I can bring this theme into my life, and the things I particularly want to work on throughout the year. I used to have 3 themes, but eventually realised this didn’t fit well with me – it might work well for you! I decided that having one overarching thing for the year lets me give it more space. Once I have my theme, I think of things that I want to work on that relate to it.

    A still life of a wilver metal pen lying on a notebook with birds and flowers on the cover. There is also a usb lava lamp, a white mug with a blue letter 'S' on, and a green malachite stone.

    So, as an example, my theme last year was ‘regeneration’. I’d had a bit of a weird time over the last few years, in addition to a close family bereavement the previous month. I wanted to begin to re-root myself in place, to start sustainable systems for food, for nature, and for my mind, and to work on coming back to myself – a regeneration of sorts. I wanted to find a solid sense of self – after years bending and changing to fit in, I wanted a breather and to build some solidity and understanding into my soul! So, for me, the theme of regeneration gave me time to stop and process, to put things I’ve learned from therapy, and from experience, into place to help me re-build a life more true to myself, whoever this self turns out to be.

    Reviewing last year’s theme

    I’m not a very specific sort of person, and find it very hard (and boring) to plan goals and how to achieve them. If my brain isn’t interested, it’s basically impossible. After years of fighting that, I now give myself the freedom to bend and change with how I approach my theme. I will start things, stop things, go on a diversion, get really into something for a while, then forget all about it. So in my review, I’ll look over the last 12 months as a whole, rather than wondering if I should have achieved a specific thing or not. Did I generally align myself with my theme? Where there some months that were better than others? What have I done over the year that reflected this theme?

    The key is finding ways that work for you. Most people I know find it really motivating to set a goal and work out how to achieve it, and if this is you, do that! Whatever works for you, that’s the right way.

    Over the last year, I’ve managed to let the garden go wilder (regeneration for nature), begin to process my neurodiversity and find ways to understand my brain more (regeneration for self). I’ve leaned into using my skills learned from my job to benefit my study at university (regeneration of skills) and learnt how to make a small animation from a course I went on (regeneration of skills and self!). Through this, I’ve begun to find confidence in myself, and am starting to find a more solid ‘me’. Did I plan how to do any of these things? No. But generally, I felt I managed to incorporate my theme into my actions. There were a few areas I didn’t focus on (health, movement) but looking back, I give myself space for the things I was experiencing at the time. It wasn’t the right time for those things – whereas now, that baseline work has given me a stronger platform to start to incorporate those for the next year. It’s all very gentle, but true to what I needed in those moments. Sometimes, change isn’t about putting a lot of energy into a project or goal. Sometimes it’s the lack of energy that allows something the space to settle itself.

    October Review and Reset: looking back month by month

    I use my photo app to jog my memory as to what I was doing each month – usually I look in 3-month (ish) chunks (again with the non-specifics!) and write down any things that happened, and think about how this affected me. Would I want to have acted differently? Did I learn anything? Could I use those learnings to inform my theme for this year? Is there anything I’d like to build on? You could also use a journal to remind you, look at your posts on social media, or review a news site – I often find I remember where I was in relation to big news stories.

    I remember things I loved from the last year, holidays, good walks, moments of learning, connection, nature. Wild swims and good laughs. I also remember the more painful times – worrying events in the news, new understanding, grief, loss, sadness. I find this cathartic – the re-living of those moments, knowing you’re here, on the other side (or still journeying through, as the process changes over time). Sometimes I take a few days for this part. Be gentle with yourself, and remember the joy with the pain. It all goes to make you who you are, and is all part of your journey.

    I look at what comes out of this process – would I like to use any learnings to inform my theme for this year? In my case, this year, I want to build on my new understanding of my brain and start to work with it, not against it. I want to let go of stress with the garden and provide more places for the beings that share the land alongside us. I want to create resilience for times of unexpected occurrences – building my foraging knowledge, creating plans, starting to use my body again. I want to work more on my spiritual path, to be in nature more, make more time for creativity. Begin to build a plan for after I finish university (which is this blog!). I have no specifics, but I know these things all encompass similarities in the intention behind them. Recognising these similarities starts to help me pin down my theme for the coming year.

    Incorporate other tools

    You can incorporate other things into your October review and reset. I like to do a tarot spread looking back over the year, along my theme. I look at learnings and where I can build in the future – I find it gives me another perspective to look both behind me and to the path ahead. A meditation would also be a nice action, or a walk in nature to a special spot. I give myself a few days to do my review, usually leading up to Samhain on the 31st, so have a few days disconnected from the world, intentionally creating this sort of temporal space in which to look back and look forwards. I tidy, I bake, I wander in nature, and feel very contemplative!

    Planting seeds

    I like the gentle easing into the next 12 months. I think of a theme, I think of some vague ideas, I leave them to rest in my mind. There’s no pressure to HIT THE GYM or GO ON A DIET or SUDDENLY CHANGE YOUR ENTIRE BEING or DO EVERYTHING STRAIGHT AWAY or ACHIEVE ALL OF YOUR RESOLUTIONS (I think January has a very ‘capitalised’ vibe when it comes to new year’s resolutions!).
    Winter is the dark time, the time when everything comes to stillness. We need this rest, this conservation of energy – we are beings like all else. The bulb planted deep needs frost to germinate anew in the spring. The energy of the earth quietens, and with it, we, and the ideas we plant in our review, quieten too. It gives us time to settle and contemplate just where we are going to go, when the days start to lengthen once more. How will we use the coming rise of energy, those long summer days? When the leaves start to unfurl, which of our ideas will unfurl along with them?

    In summary

    October, the year-end of the wheel of the year, is a perfect time to take stock, review your past year, and to set intentions for the year ahead. The darker winter months allow your ideas or goals to mellow and rest, and in spring, it is time to act of some of these little idea-seeds that have been waiting for you.

    My ‘theme’ for this year is strengthening.

    What will yours be?

    Pinterest pin October review and reset

  • Blog,  Bookshelf

    Book Review: Sisters Under the Rising Sun by Heather Morris

    Sisters Under the Rising Sun by Heather Morris Book Review 4/5

    From the publisher:

    In the midst of WWII, an English musician, Norah Chambers, places her eight-year-old daughter Sally on a ship leaving Singapore, desperate to keep her safe as the island falls to the Japanese Army.

    Sisters under the rising sun book cover.

    Australian nurse Nesta James has enlisted to tend to Allied troops. But as Japanese troops overrun the island she joins the terrified cargo of people, including the heartbroken Norah, crammed aboard the Vyner Brooke merchant ship. Only two days later, they are bombarded from the air off the coast of Indonesia, and in a matter of hours, the Vyner Brooke has sunk.

    After surviving 24 hours in the sea, Nesta and Norah reach the beaches of a remote island, only to be captured and held in one of the notorious Japanese POW camps. The camps are places of starvation and brutality, where disease runs rampant.

    But even here joy can be found, in music, where Norah’s ‘voice orchestra’ has the power to transport the internees out of the squalor and into the light. Sisters in arms, Norah and Nesta devote themselves to the women’s survival while discovering their own extraordinary reserves of courage, love and strength.

    Sisters under the Rising Sun is a story of women in war: a novel of sisterhood, bravery and friendship in the darkest of circumstances, from the multimillion-copy bestselling author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Cilka’s Journey and Three Sisters.


    We glimpse the pain of death, the worry of tropical disease and the horrific violence from the camp guards, but the story carries on, and the women carry on, as they must.

    Sisters Under the Rising Sun is based on the true accounts of a group of women captured during WW2 and interred in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. We learn of a group of Australian nurses, serving with the Australian Army, and meet others who are also taken prisoner.

    The story is mainly told by Nesta James, a nurse, and Norah Chambers, a musician from England. Once captured, the women are sent to a prisoner of war camp in Indonesia. Sisters Under the Rising Sun tells of their experiences in the 3 years and 7 months that they were incarcerated in the camps. The women were often split up and moved to different locations, and subjected to starvation, unsanitary conditions and hard labour. This is a hard-hitting read, but written in a style that somehow sets the reader away from the terrible things happening to the women. For me, it took a while to get used to the writing – I loved Morris’s previous books The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Cilka’s Journey immediately, but this wasn’t an instant connection. However, as I progressed through the book, the writing style took on a different meaning for me.

    For me, I initially felt the writing style a little saccharine in the description of the nurses, a little lacking in depth – short paragraphs and a lack of detail beyond the dialogue. However, this began to evoke a sort of disconnection from the horrific experiences of the nurses during their incarceration in the camps. The nurses are stoic, practical and the deep camaraderie and sisterhood between the women is obviously a source of strength between the group, when conditions, supplies and willpower are slowly eroded away in the camps. It made me wonder that the lack of much emotion in the writing reflected the trauma and damage that these women must have experienced. The factual recounting of deaths as camp conditions deteriorated and illness took over, the brutal punishments endured by some of the women described in just a few sentences, and the way that hierarchy shaped the way they managed to survive in the camp – we are there, but not quite there. As I got used to this, and imagined this grim form of survival, the lack of emotion actually made it more real, somehow.

    Having witnessed massacres of their colleagues and friends, a shipwreck and the loss of children and partners, the women find strength in hierarchy and assigning meaning to their days. The division of labour, the meaning given to certain tasks, the grim humour in the face of starvation. Sorting weevils from the rice rations, finding solace in song and music. The focus of the writing on the details of the connection between the women and the strength they found in each other, rather than the horrific experiences they were sharing, showcases the importance of the bond between the group. Kind words and support between each other are given precedence. Individual experiences and acts of solidarity are detailed, with the harrowing events of every day camp life being described in an almost factual way by the women. We glimpse the pain of death, the worry of tropical disease and the horrific violence from the camp guards, but the story carries on, and the women carry on, as they must.

    Morris details the real-life stories of the women at the end of the book, and that reminder that these events happened to real people makes the book even more hard hitting. Their stories are truly important, and should not be forgotten. A difficult read, but one that is so worth it.

    Thank you #Netgalley for the ARC 🙂


     

    Sisters under the rising sun Book cover for Pinterest.

  • Blog,  Bookshelf

    Book Review: The Maniac by Benjamin Labatut

    The Maniac by Benjamín Labatut Book Review 5/5

    Cover of The Maniac by Benjamin Labatut. The cover is black and white and depicts and mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb.

    From the publisher:

    John von Neumann was a titan of science. A Hungarian wunderkind who revolutionized every field he touched, his mathematical powers were so exceptional that Hans Bethe – a Nobel Prize-winning physicist – thought he might represent the next step in human evolution.

    After seeking the foundations of mathematics during his youth in Germany, von Neumann emigrated to the United States, where he became entangled in the power games of the Cold War; he designed the world’s first programmable computer, invented game theory, pioneered AI and digital life, and helped create the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was the darling of the military industrial complex, but when illness unmoored his mind, his work pushed further into areas beyond human comprehension and control.

    The MANIAC places von Neumann at the center of a literary triptych about the dark foundations of our modern world and the nascent era of AI. It begins with Paul Ehrenfest, an Austrian physicist and close friend of Einstein, who fell into despair when he saw science and technology become tyrannical forces; it ends a hundred years later, in the showdown between the South Korean Go Master, Lee Sedol, and the AI program AlphaGo.

    Braiding fact with fiction, Benjamín Labatut takes us on a journey to the frontiers of rational thought, where invention outpaces human understanding and offers godlike power, but takes us to the brink of Armageddon.


    Review contains spoilers.

    The Maniac…hints at a darkness present at the limits of knowledge…the transmutation of that knowledge into ultimate power…

    Labatut’s first novel, ‘When we Cease to understand the World’, absolutely knocked me sideways. I’d never read anything like it – a heady, manic mash up of truth, fiction, and something almost in between the two. It’s a book that’s stayed in my mind ever since I first read it, and now, with The Maniac, Labatut is back and I’m glad to report it absolutely doesn’t disappoint.

    The Maniac tells the story of mathematical genius Janus (John) von Neumann, from the points of view of those surrounding him, following his journey from precocious childhood, his achievements in physics and mathematics, and his work on the atomic bomb. The Maniac is hard reading in places, with Labatut’s skilful weaving of fact and fiction painting a devastating picture of the interplay between genius and callousness. Particularly hard hitting is von Neumann’s calculations of the exact height from which to drop the bombs for maximum devastation and his abstinence in signing a joint letter to President Eisenhower, in which a group of nuclear physicists hope that the bombs they developed are never used.

    The main section of the book, concerning von Neumann, is told by those who work and live alongside him – school friends, colleagues, spouses. The overall picture is chilling, detailed and ultimately devastating. I found Labatut’s writing to show a sort of ease with which horrific weapons can be developed in the name of scientific advancement, and an apparent casualness in the work of some of the most intelligent minds employed to work on those weapons. The Maniac differs in tone from Labatut’s previous book – although the commentary concerning von Neumann’s seeming lack of morality may touch on similar concepts. At what point does genius become madness? The Maniac, however, hints at a darkness present at the limits of knowledge – not madness, individually, but the transmutation of that knowledge into ultimate power and the consequences that follow.

    The Maniac begins, and ends, with separate sections which seem to be mostly factual, although there is no indication as to which parts may or may not be fictionalised – and as someone unversed in the intricacies of chess tournaments, I would have no idea! The book begins with an account of Paul Ehrenfest, a physicist, becoming increasingly disillusioned by developments in the field and overwhelmed by societal implications for his disabled son. Terribly, Ehrenfest kills his son and commits suicide immediately afterwards. For me, this opening chapter has echoes of When We Cease To Understand The World – the tipping point between genius and madness. After von Neumann’s death, the book ends with a detailed account of the development of artificial intelligence, specifically relating to chess and the game Go, and the ability to defeat human players. As we enter this new world of AI and unknown power, we need to remember the consequences that may follow when pushing the limits of knowledge. A full 5 stars – I loved this.

    Thank you to #Netgalley for the ARC 🙂


     

    The Maniac by Benjamin Labatut cover, showing a mushroom cloud in sepia colours.

  • Adventures,  Blog,  Places,  Places to Stay

    North Coast 500 for Introverts

    Driving the North Coast 500 for introverts : 8 quiet days around Scotland

    View out to the sea from Cairn Liath broch. The picture is taken stood on top of an old circular stone building, with grass in the middle and on the top of the walls. The view is out to a calm sea with blue sky and a white cloud.
    Cairn Liath Broch

    Welcome to my guide to the North Coast 500 for introverts! The North Coast 500 is a route around the North Coast of Scotland. Billed as the ‘ultimate road trip’ the NC500 is a 516-mile circular route around the far north of Scotland, taking in some beautiful sights. We’d been talking about driving it for the past few years. My 40th birthday this year gave us the perfect excuse to finally head on up to Scotland and spend just over a week amongst dramatic mountains, perfect sandy beaches, and the obligatory clouds of midges!

    We’re both quite quiet people, and although we visited a few touristy places, we tended towards quieter places with nature rather than ‘things to do’.  If you want an action-packed itinerary, this post probably won’t be for you – but there are some excellent ones here and here! If you like to amble along at a slower pace, looking at little things and standing at the bottom of mountains in awe, rather than hiking to the top, then this might be more of your bag.

    This is a long post, apologies – I thought it would be better to include everything in one rather than splitting it, so feel free to grab a cuppa and work your way through! 😉

    Jump To:

    Planning

    Packing

    Route

    Sal’s Camping Shower Guide

    Planning to avoid the crowds

    Roads

    We completed the NC500 in early June, which was a great time to do so. We got lucky with the weather (it somehow didn’t rain until the last day!) and the long hours of daylight give you extra time to amble along slowly and savour the journey. The roads on the route itself were not busy – there were enough people obviously ‘doing’ the route to give you a nice sense of camaraderie (and some good waving to each other at passing places!), but not so many as to delay the driving time or to snarl up the roads.

    I read that in peak season journey times can pretty much double, and I can see why – a lot of the roads were single track with passing places, and a few large campers or a particularly busy group of cars would easily cause delays. If you’re visiting in the summer months, there should be enough daylight to make an early or later start an option, to avoid peak times on the small roads.

    Depending on where you are travelling from, expect traffic around the cities and popular Lochs (e.g. Loch Lomond and Loch Ness areas) and tourist traps such as Glencoe, which is to be expected on a sunny weekend.

    We completed the route in a little Ford Fiesta, which was the perfect size for the single track roads (but was a little small for the amount of stuff we took with us, although we definitely over-packed!).The driving itself wasn’t too much of a problem for us, as we’re in our own little car, but if you don’t like crowded roads it is something to keep in mind. The route is signposted, and is made of wider roads and tiny single track ones with passing places. There are a lot of passing places, so generally you just wait your turn, but there are some *very* steep areas and tight roads. It’s not hard driving (apart from Applecross which is insane) but you need to keep aware so it can be quite tiring.

    • Takeaways:
      -Visit off-peak if you can (peak summer holiday season in the UK is usually late June/July/Aug).
      -Consider early or late starts if you are there in peak season, make the most of the daylight.
      -Plan to stop outside of the traditional touristy places – there is amazing scenery everywhere so you won’t miss out!
      -Take snacks/supplies with you to avoid having to stop at busy shopping areas to pick up food.
    Itinerary

    We planned 7 days on the actual North Coast 500 route, and two recovery nights camping at Loch Lomond. This was absolutely not enough time, I’d recommend a leisurely 10 days at least, and if/when we return we will definitely take longer, stay longer in each place and give ourselves a bit of breathing space. We camped each night, and the putting up/taking down of the tent each day became dreary. It would have been nice to have a day in-between where we didn’t have to pack everything away straight away.

    There are plentiful campsites and campervan parking, and you can theoretically camp/park in most places, although it’s so important not to cause a nuisance to the people who live on and around the route, or to leave a mess. We booked campsites a few months in advance, and they were filling up fast.

    A few months prior, we bought a small North Coast 500 Map that had many points of interest, borrowed a guidebook from a friend which gave us some great ideas, and watched lots of YouTube videos! I looked up our National Trust for Scotland guide (we’re members as it’s cheaper than the England one and gets you into the same places!), and also got really into discovering old burial sites, cairns and barrows that I wanted to visit (although due to time we missed out a lot). Definitely plan everything out before you go, and pre-book places if you can do to avoid waiting to get in. We planned each day out in Notion, and added our Google map (downloaded), campsite details, and packing list so it was all in one place. Of course, planning your trip adds to the excitement, but knowing what you’re doing each day reduces stress levels if you’re on a tight schedule.

    We planned to visit some old brochs, lochs, beaches and generally enjoy the views as we were driving along as this is more up our street. There are loads of fantastic hikes and beaches all around the route, and nature in abundance! There are also loads of distilleries, castles and historical sites – there really is something for everyone. You can see our route in more detail in Part 2.

    • Takeaways:
      -Plan your route in advance.
      -Give yourself enough time to relax into your trip.

      -Enjoy picking out must-do’s, it adds to the excitement and reduces stress  – but feel free to detour!
      -Pre-book camping and campervan spots online – avoid stress and know you have a space when you arrive.
      -Research campsites before booking – some can be quite loud or particularly busy. Read Google reviews, look at pictures, and look for alternatives if you’re not feeling the vibe.

      -Consider avoiding the main tourist attractions – just because you are on the NC500 doesn’t mean you have to visit the same places everyone else does! There are lovely quiet places away from the crowds.

    Packing

    Obviously, a lot of packing will depend on how you are planning to travel – we camped each night so took a lot more than if we had planned to B&B, for example. Everyone’s camping set-up is different, but we made sure we took some camping chairs, air mattress, pillows, sleeping bags, plus a gas stove, Trangia, and assorted fuel and utensils. I love my cosy 4-season sleeping bag as I get freezing no matter what the season is, or how many layers I have between me and the ground. Mr GF hates small sleeping bags so has a Pod Bag- a larger sized one to move around in!

    This is Scotland, and there will probably be midges – we found Smidge worked really well. If your campsite allows fires, the smoke keeps them away too. It’s always worth taking a midge net (make sure it has really fine mesh as they can get through some of the traditional mosquito nets) to go over your head/face – pretty much everyone we saw was wearing them from dusk onwards so don’t worry about looking daft like I did initially, just embrace it as everyone will look silly along with you! It’s worth it not to be absolutely covered in bites the next day. If you do get bitten, I find Anthisan is excellent, and Mr GF got some roll-on witch hazel/aloe (from Home Bargains I think) and reports that it really helped. The Scottish Midge Forecast can help you to prepare by at least steeling yourself for the inevitable.

    We had one tick bite and extracted the little bugger with a tick card and smothered loads of Germolene (antiseptic cream) on after – definitely worth taking. Keep an eye on tick bites and if you have any irritation, feel under the weather or get a ‘target’ rash, go to the doctor as soon as possible, as they can carry Lyme Disease.

    As an introvert, I don’t like loud/busy campsites, so made sure I took some earplugs ( I have some ‘loop inspired’ ones from eBay that work just fine!) and lots of things to distract myself, like sketchbook and pens, books, Dobble (the best camping game), headphones and downloaded Spotify playlists etc. I also made sure I packed my ultimate ‘camping shower’ kit to get in and out any potential busy showers as quick as possible! See below for my kit recommendations 😉

    There are numerous petrol points and shops along the route. We didn’t feel we needed to pack petrol, however if you’re in a car with a low mpg it might be worth having a can. Some of the pumps are community-owned which is excellent! Download your google maps or take an up-to-date paper map. We didn’t have any problems with mobile reception but worth it just in case.

    • Takeaways:
      -Plan your meals and take enough food so you’re ready to cook when you get camped.
      -Teabags, obviously.
      -You will need midge repellent, plus something to put on after you inevitably get bitten. Midge nets look daft but are a lifesaver. Take a tick card just in case.
      -If, like me, you aren’t a fan of noisy campsites, take some earplugs or earphones, as well as something distracting to do. 
      -You can get in and out of busy shower areas quickly with a bit of prep. See my ultimate camping shower kit at the bottom of the post…

    We are two adults with no kids, so this definitely affects how we travel and what we look for in campsites and stopping places. If you’re travelling with kids there are some fab guides available, Families Can Travel has an excellent one here.

    Our Route

    So, onto the itinerary. We spent 7 days driving the route and an extra night at Loch Lomond afterwards, before driving the long drive home. I’ve given details of where we camped each night, along with an ‘introvert rating’ which is just generally how peaceful I felt when there! This is absolutely no reflection of the quality of the campsites – all of them were really nice, clean and had good facilities.

    Quick Itinerary:
    Day 1: Home to Loch Ness
    Day 2: Loch Ness to John O’Groats
    Day 3: John O’Groats to Durness
    Day 4: Durness to Althandu
    Day 5: Althandu to Carn Dearg
    Day 6: Carn Dearg to Sligachan, Skye
    Day 7: Sligachan to Loch Lomond
    Day 8: Loch Lomond

    Day 1: Home to Loch Ness (via Glencoe)

    Campsite: Inver Coille Campsite
    Introvert Rating: 5/5
    Quiet things to do: Spot Nessie (obviously), Invermoriston falls, Urquhart Castle.

    Inver Coille campsite. A green grass campsite surrounded by pine trees, with a gravel path running through the field. There is a picnic bench and cooking area in the foreground and a few small tents in the distance. The sky is grey and cloudy.
    Inver Coille campsite

    We missioned up to Loch Ness in one day, which was a long trek, taking around 8 hours. Not being one for directions, I was absolutely stunned when we reached Glencoe – it is absolutely beautiful. I was thinking “where IS this place! It’s amazing!” and then realised where we were. It’s not often scenery actually truly takes my breath away but I felt it here. One of those rare places that makes you forget words and just gaze at the mountains in awe. It was busy – it was a Saturday – but just incredible!

    Glencoe. An old mountain, covered in lush green grass, rises in the foreground, with other rocky mountains int he background. The sky is blue with a white and grey cloud, and a shaft of sunlight lighting up the valley in front of the mountain.
    Glencoe

    After a loonng drive, it was lovely to arrive at this peaceful campsite which is tents only (plus a few comfy-looking glamping pods). The shower block was great, with separate toilets and two shower rooms with shower cubicle, sink and loo, sanitary products provided, everything you need. The glamping pods get their own facilities too. The only downside was lugging up our camping equipment from the car park (not far, admittedly) after the long drive, but there were wheelbarrows provided which were very much appreciated!

    A really quiet campsite when we visited in early June. There was a small firepit area and picnic bench,  it was ‘pick your own’ pitch and we decided to pitch up at the side next to the woodland. There was also another smaller field also available for tents. After the long drive, we had terrible stove coffee (in a pan as we couldn’t find our cups!), traditional pasta/beans combination, took advantage of the showers and fell asleep.

    Day 2: Loch Ness to John O’ Groats

    Campsite: John O’Groats Campsite
    Introvert Rating: 3/5 (although our pitch, next to the sea fence was a 4/5 I reckon).
    Quiet things to do: Chanonry Point, Hill o’ many Stanes, Cairn Liath Broch, Old Wick Castle, wander along the coastal path, get a coffee in the John O’Groats café and watch everyone taking photos next to the sign, dolphin spotting, boat trips (can be a bit crowded).

    The John O'Groats signpost, a post showing directions and distances to different parts of the world. In front of the sign is a gravel area, and behind is a small harbour with a few boats, and the sea beyond that. In the distance are the Orkney Isles. The sky is grey clouds.
    John O’Groats

    We set off from Loch Ness and stopped quickly in Drumnadrochit to grab a Nessie patch, then readied ourselves for the drive up the East coast to John O’Groats. Officially the NC500 starts in Inverness, so we drove through to feel as though we’d properly begun the trip!

    One thing on our list was seeing the dolphins at Chanonry Point – I’d had a tip to go during the rising tide, as apparently they follow the fish in – but despite arriving in good time, there were no dolphins to be seen. Consoling ourselves with a great coffee from Bak Hoos, we headed off to Dunrobin Castle. Unfortunately, it was rather expensive for us (£14 each entry) so we wandered around the forest and played Ewoks on the little bridge in the carpark instead. Free castle!

    We then drove about five minutes further and stopped to have a look at Cairn Liath Broch. This is over the road from where you park your car but is signposted. It was really nice and quiet – we could have stayed a good while longer watching the sea and the cows below (see photo at the top of the post!).

    John O’Groats itself had a great vibe, we watched some people ride to the sign after cycling from Lands End  and everyone came out to clap! It was quiet and really nice just to wander around, have a pint from the brewery, and sit looking out to sea with some binoculars. I can imagine it gets busy during tourist season though and it’s a small place so this is something to keep in mind.

    I woke up on my 40th birthday in our tent, overlooking the sea, and spotted three dolphins – an excellent birthday present. We also saw our first hooded crows here. The campsite was busy, but our tent pitch was fab, right in the top corner next to the fence on the cliff – luckily it wasn’t windy! Showers were a bit hit and miss – mine was scalding hot no matter what temperature I set it too – so scalding I had to hop in and out every few seconds. Although I love stuff like that when camping, it’s like overcoming a challenge! I liked the vibe of John O’Groats and would love to go back.

    Next time we will definitely spend more time on the East coast on the way up- there are a lot of ruins, burial chambers, stone circles and lovely things to explore.

    Day 3: John O’Groats to Durness

    Campsite: Sango Sands Oasis
    Introvert Rating: 2/5 pretty busy, big campsite
    Quiet things to do: Things Va, Dounreay Viewing Platform, Dun Dornaigil Broch, Melvich Beach, Strathnavar Museum, Ben Hope, Kyle of Tongue, Smoo Cave, Durness beach.

    Durness Beach. Standing on the shore looking out at a rock formation, with a cliff to the right in the background. The sky is blue with no clouds and the waves are gentle. The water is very clear.
    Durness Beach

    After a lovely birthday breakfast and some time spent spotting dolphins with my new birthday binoculars, we packed up camp, which was already becoming rather wearisome. I’d definitely recommend packing light if you are camping for just a single night in each place. With our trademark disorganisation, we ended up just shoving everything in the car which meant an air of chaos started to creep in around this point! But with everything shoved in, we wished good luck to the campervan behind us who were running and cycling JOGLE starting that day, and trundled off along the North-est of the North coast.

    View down a lush green valley, with a mountain range in the background. There is a broch wall on the left, with grey stone covered in lichen. The sky is mostly fluffy cloud and patches of blue.
    Broch Dun Dornaigil

    Today we ended up taking a diversion to an interesting-sounding broch, Broch Dun Dornaigil. This diversion ended up being 10 miles each way along a tiny singletrack road with grass in the middle, which was an excellent adventure! The road ran along a valley floor and past the bottom of Ben Hope, with a small carpark for those hiking up the mountain. There is some absolutely stunning scenery, some surprising encounters meeting a few cars coming the opposite direction on blind bends, and as we reached our destination, the scenery opened out into some sort of mystical land.

    We found the broch (hoorah!) next to the sparkling Strathmore River, with cuckoos calling and bees buzzing all around, and it felt as though we were transported back in time somehow. Wonderful. Two more people turned up whilst we were there so although feeling very isolated, it was obviously not as out-of-the-way as we imagined, but still definitely a great quiet site and fantastic to spend a few hours with a picnic or walking the routes around Ben Hope.

    Day 4: Durness to Althandu

    Campsite: Port a Bhaigh campsite
    Introvert Rating: 3/5
    Quiet things to do: Paddleboarding/kayaking/swimming, UNESCO Geopark, Wee Mad Road, Eilean Donan Castle, Achmelvich Castle.

    Port a Bhaigh campsite. View to the sea with some grassy areas directly in front. The sun is directly in front, high in the blue sky. There is an island in the distance and a hill to the right.
    View from our tent at Port a Bhaigh campsite

    I loved this day. Driving through spectacular scenery, we stopped so many times to take photos and just be blown away by how rugged and beautiful the landscape is here. We also saw a Golden Eagle, which was the highlight of the trip for me – it was HUGE! If you love hiking, this is the area for you. There are numerous places to pull over, park and head into the mountains. I would love to spend a lot longer here – the stillness, wildness and beauty is something else.

    This was the day we tackled the ‘Mad Wee Road’ and yes it is mad! Steep, twisty and great fun, although very tiring to drive as you need a lot of concentration! We stopped halfway around at Drumbeg, as it seemed quite a few other people were doing too. There’s a viewing point and car parking area with a great view back up the coastline. Lots of waving to other cars as we passed by on this road, it seems everyone is slightly manic and running on adrenaline and sharing the camaraderie of “why are we doing this?!” It was fantastic, beautiful and I fully recommend tackling it.

    We camped at Port a Bhaigh campsite which is divided up into a campervan area, tents/motorbikes and a top area near the carpark where it seemed a lot of smaller tents were located, which had a louder atmosphere than where we were. We picked a spot on a ‘shelved’ area with an amazing view out to the sea. The main site building was quite busy, mainly as it was the only place where there was wifi! There’s a small shop and some tables to sit out, too. Showers were nice and big, and there are good facilities. The beach is amazing, with huge round pebbles, and the water is stunningly clear, perfect for a swim or paddleboard. I loved the location, found the site bordering on a bit busy for me, even though it was nice and quiet at night, but it was a lovely place and I’d love to go back off-season.

    Day 5: Althandu to Carn Dearg

    Campsite: Sands Caravan and Camping
    Introvert Rating: 3/5 (although sand dunes 4/5, huge campsite, lots of people but very spaced out)
    Quiet things to do: Kayaking, local walks, visit Ullapool, Corrieshalloch Gorge.

    North Coast 500 for Introverts. View from a road of a mountain range, with grass to the left. There is blue sky and a white fluffy cloud over the top of the mountains.
    Amazing views on the route

    The next day, we wound our way along the road to visit Ullapool. After the wild days in the Highlands, it was a bit of a culture shock to arrive in a bustling tourist town. A cruise ship has just docked, and there were boatloads of tourist being ferried to and from the huge liner – this was quite fun to watch but meant the town was very busy. We wandered around for a while and managed to grab a quick coffee before the crowds arrived, but for me it was a little too much – the shops are very tourist oriented and not really up my street. Having said this, the town itself is very pretty and the surrounding mountains are gorgeous. Eventually we wandered down to the harbour and watched some of the ships, then found a railing to lean on further down the road to look out at the cruise liner. We also spotted a seal popping up around the harbour.
    On the way back to the car, two fighter jets roared down between the mountains which was amazing and very unexpected! If you know me you’ll know I am a bit of a plane spotting geek, so I loved seeing them whoosh past. On the whole though, Ullapool wasn’t the vibe for me – there were lots of people and crowded areas in a small town, and although there were some lovely shops I think the general busyness meant I didn’t really want to stay and wander around.

    Much more up our street was Corrieshalloch Gorge. A quiet trail through woodland takes you on a bridge right over the gorge, and following the footpath you’ll come out at a viewing platform stretching out over the abyss – it was a long way down! We amused ourselves for quite a while creeping out to the end of the platform and trying to let go of the railing with both hands (very brave haha). The walk was nice and easy – although it sloped all the way down, which meant it was uphill all the way back but nothing too taxing. There are very clean loos and a coffee hatch/tables as well.

    We ended the day at Sands Campsite which is HUGE, but has a fantastic minimum distance requirement between tents/vans which I thought was a great idea! The site is fab for kids – there’s a nice café, a well stocked shop, tv room, games room and even a BMX pump track. The facilities were absolutely sparking clean and spacious. The site was busy, but we managed to find a secluded spot right in a sand dune, so it felt like there was only us there! If you want to get a dune spot, get there earlier as they fill up quickly. There were some areas that were noisier or busier than others, however the site really is massive so you can pick a quieter spot with no problems. The beach is just on the other side of the dunes and again, is HUGE, so lots of open space. Word of warning though – apparently midges love sand dunes…

    Day 6: Carn Dearg to Sligachan, Isle of Skye

    Campsite: Sligachan Campsite
    Introvert rating: 1/5 (busy and close-quarters camping)
    Quiet things to do: Say hi to Callum the Stag (on Torridan Road), Applecross, tackling Bealach na Bà road, Lunch at The Bealach cafe to recover, Sligachan bridge, Glamaig horseshoe hike, Sligachan waterfalls, Isle of Skye.

    North coast 500 for introverts. A twisty road leading down between two mountains, with a glimpse of sea at the bottom.
    Applecross

    Today was a long drive and in hindsight we should have split it up or spent longer on Skye. We detoured away from the official NC500 route to hop over to the Isle of Skye. Before this, though, we stopped to say a hello to Torridan road’s resident stag, Callum, who regularly hangs around the car park. We then steeled our nerves to tackle the infamous Bealach na Bà road, a steep, twisting road that seemed to reduce in the amount of actual road the further up the mountain we got. Our poor little Ford Fiesta, crammed with camping gear and two not-the-lightest of humans did most of the climb in 1st and 2nd gear, resulting in having to rest at the top to let the boiling radiator steam calm down a little. Luckily, the views were amazing.

    If the way up was slightly nerve-wracking, the way down was just the same – a winding twisty road that looks amazing fun from the top, but definitely tests the brakes! Additionally, there were lots of people in big fast sports cars roaring up it at breakneck speeds, whom you really don’t want to meet on a blind bend or steep incline in a Ford Fiesta. With the radiator bubbling, the brakes stinking, and giggling with adrenaline, we made it down, took the obligatory photo with the warning sign at the bottom, and collapsed into the nearest café to recover. Excellent experience and 10/10 would do again, but maybe not in a Fiesta. You will definitely not get up the road in a large camper or with a caravan, so cars, bikes and vans only, I think.

    From here it was still a long drive to Skye, and we probably could have stopped at many more places but felt like we had to push on. Eventually we arrived at Sligachan campsite, a windy flat site at the base of Glamaig mountain, and absolutely beautiful, of course. By this time I was a little grumpy about putting the tent up and down every day, and the site was busy, with people pitching up right next door – which is fine, but I’d prefer to be somewhere at the edge by myself! However, it was good for people watching – a particular favourite was a lady trying to swat every single midge with one of those electric tennis bat things, and quickly giving up. The site has an adventurous vibe – the nearest thing I can think is Vik campsite in Iceland, busy, international, friendly, everyone excited about getting into/coming back from the mountains.

    Day 7: Sligachan to Loch Lomond
    Day 8: Loch Lomond

    Campsite: Loch Lomond Sallochy Campsite
    Introvert rating: 2/5 (potentially higher depending on day/location)
    Quiet things to do: Castle Aaaargh (Castle Stalker), Glencoe, James Bond Skyfall Road, kayaking, paddleboarding, West Highland Way, walks, wild swimming

    Woodland camp with a lit fire pit, camp chair, trangia. The sun is shining through the trees on the banks of Loch Lomond.
    Loch Lomond Sallochy Campsite

    Another long drive from Skye right down to Loch Lomond today. We decided to cut the bottom off the NC500 loop and instead head for some lakeside R+R. We headed down through Fort William, a shock to the system after the relative quietness of the past week – it was very busy. We drove back up through Glencoe, stopping this time to take some photos!

    We also popped to see Castle Stalker (Monty Python’s Castle Aaargh) – we ended up parking in the Castle Stalker View café carpark, but there are some better directions to the location from Third Eye Traveller here. From there, the last leg to Loch Lomond was bittersweet – there were a lot more cars on the road and it really felt like the holiday was coming to an end. Stopping at a supermarket to stock up on food, we really were back in civilisation, and I just wanted to turn round and head back up to the North Coast again!

    We’d booked one of the private woodland pitches at Loch Lomond’s Sallochy Campsite for a relaxing two nights after the week spent driving, but we were both expecting it to be a lot quieter and more private than it was. The West Highlands Way runs right past the woodland camp area, which is great to see everyone wandering along (some in fine voice which was excellent!) but soon after we arrived, people started to pitch tents in the private single woodland pitch areas. The main campsite is a further few minutes walk along the path, and has specific pre-booked spots for those travelling the West Highland Way, but there are no signs to direct walkers along the path which leads to some misunderstanding with the pitch bookings. Each woodland pitch has the booker’s name stapled at the entrance but this is hard to see if you’re not looking for it.

    This all got sorted after a while, and we settled down to our nights under the trees. There is a no-alcohol rule on site which was flagrantly disobeyed by a few people, along with loud music from camps drifting through the trees during the day although everything generally quietened down at night. Rangers are only on site for a limited time during the day.

    The site has a limit on bookings but is definitely not as quiet as I was expecting. There were also quite a few ‘party boats’ and jet skis on the Loch itself, but luckily the Loch is massive and they disappeared out of range quite quickly! This was probably due to it being a nice sunny weekend, and I think the site itself would be a lot quieter during the week. However, overall our woodland camp was generally chilled out, and we were lucky with our tent neighbours on the next pitch who were very quiet – some pitches lead into each other (like ours), some are single ones, but you can’t specify, so cross your fingers!

    The first day we did absolutely nothing, I spent the whole day reading a whole pile of magazines and doing some sketches. The Loch was right outside the tent – you really are Lochside, and can swim/paddleboard/kayak to your heart’s content. Being under the trees was lovely. The compost loos were a right trek from our pitch but clean to use. There are no showers, and only two sinks – one for personal hygiene and one for washing up (people were using both for both though). With the amount of campers, an additional sink would have been useful. I’d recommend just jumping in the Loch to clean yourself though!

    We hired a firepit and a bag of logs and just enjoyed chilling next to it, plus the smoke kept the midges away. The next night, it rained for the first time all trip, just in time to attempt to stuff our soggy tent back into the bag and wheel everything back to the car in numerous trips. It was time to head home!

    Overall Thoughts

    I would love to do the NC500 again – I felt there was so much we didn’t see as we only had a certain amount of time to get round the route. It’s the perfect holiday if you are on the introverted side like me – lots of craggy, wild scenery, not many people about, and you can make your sightseeing stops as quiet or busy as you like. I’d like to ‘complete the loop’ next time just to say I’ve done it, but I loved the vibe of Skye and would like to spend some more time there too! Next time I’d recommend at least 10 days, if not a full two weeks even, and spending more time in each location to feel like we’ve really ‘arrived’ and have some down time to recharge.

    Definitely research the campsites and read TripAdvisor and Google reviews to see if it will be your vibe before you get there. Consider wild camping if you can ensure you’ll leave no trace. Detour off the route and make the most of the amazing scenery and wildlife – places like Glencoe are stunning but very busy, and there are countless other areas to explore and marvel at.

    All in all, we had an amazing time – can’t wait to go back!


    Sal’s Ultimate Camping Shower Kit

    -Door hooks
    -Sliders
    -Bag for Life/IKEA bag
    -Two towels: one for your body, one sacrificial one for the floor (RIP)
    -Hair towel (I have this one from Decathlon and it’s ace)
    -Spray antibac
    -Bag for toiletries – make sure it has a loop to hang it up
    -All your soap/shampoo/toothpaste/toothbrush etc
    -A small wax wrap or a food bag

    Go into shower, put your hooks over the door and use to hang up your towels, toiletries bag & bag for life. Feel smug. Keep your sliders on for your whole shower or you will 100% get trenchfoot. Quickly spray the whole area down with antibac. Dry clothes go in your bag for life.

    Have your shower, put hair in towel if needed, wrap one towel around yourself to dry. The sacrificial towel is there to sit on/stand on if needed (benches are always covered in water and/or other unidentifiable things).  Extract dry clothes from bag for life, replace with all wet towels etc.

    Mop up if required (some sites have a squeegee/mop) and head to sinks to do your teeth etc. Don’t forget your hooks! At the sink, the wax wrap/food bag is to balance your toothbrush/contacts/soap/makeup/whatever on next to the sink.

    Done? Vacate asap and feel like a pro!

    North Coast 500 for Introverts Pinterest

  • Blog,  Wild Garden,  Wildlife

    Borage

    Borage

    Borage loves to be in our garden. Blue and white and spikier than you’d expect, with little hairs glowing white in sunlight and bees bumbling around all day. It self-seeds with abandon, covering what was once the veg patch, and is now the borage patch. I sit in a corner and watch things flying in and out for hours, sipping a cup of tea, watching the sun fade away to shadow and butterflies going to bed, making way for the night-flying moths. Frogs underneath, snails sliming their way around the bottom, deterred by the spiny hairs. Bees, of course – a variety of bumbles, then honeybees. Wasps, hoverflies, smaller flies that I don’t know the names of. A small patch, in the grand scheme of things, but layers and layers of life, of beauty, of gentle peace.

    A honey bee gathering nectar from a white borage flower. A patch of borage, with plants with blue and white flowers. There is one taller plant with white flowers rising out of the middle of the patch. Behind is a cotoneaster hedge. A borage plant with blue flowers. a patch of borage with white and blue flowers

  • Blog

    Giving yourself permission to be

    Giving yourself permission to be

    I start most sentences with ‘now I’m 40…’ recently. It seems as though I’ve somehow shifted into a new phase of life, in this fourth decade. Although, it may just be a serendipitous coming together of a lot of things from the last few years, but the timing seems right, in a way. Has anyone else felt something similar as they get older? Like a settling into yourself, almost? Now I’m 40, I feel that… haha!

    I wanted to do a sort of ‘this is what I’ve learned’ thing, but I’m not that great at condensing things and I’m really not good at advice. So instead, here is a collection of thoughts and maybe one or two of them will resonate with someone. Or not! If you’re looking for an actual, helpful list of things, you can find that here, or watch Ethan Hawke’s TED talk on creativity here, which is pretty good. I like to read people’s thoughts and experiences and so I’m just going to ramble out some of that, instead.

     

    Letting go…

     

    In true Sal fashion, I’ve got loads of things I want to write down, but not really any idea how to start. I want to try and describe this shift into being able to choose what to hold on to, and what to let go. Although I think it’s not really a conscious process so much as a “I can’t be arsed with this any more” vibe instead! (Also, can I just interject here that the washing machine has just finished, and the glorious sunshine has immediately disappeared and now it’s raining. Humph). Anyway, I wanted to type out those things that are on their way out, in a sort of great final ‘sodding off’ list. So here they are:

     

    • Caring about being overweight: there’s a whole lot of history here which I won’t bore you with, but I imagine some people may have some similar thoughts. Safe to say, I’ve somehow become so annoyed with the whole thing that I refuse to care any more. Instead of trying to lose weight, I’m thinking about health, longevity, mental health, and sorting my duff knee out. Realising that bodies exist and change over time, and I currently exist in this one, at this time.

     

    • Thinking the only riches are monetary: I remember in my twenties absolutely wishing for just one day off a week, where I didn’t have to think about work. That wish seemed to work rather well although I seemingly forgot to ask the universe not to f* me over in the process – now I have a lot of time, but also a chronic illness and an inability to actually sustain a full time job. Hooray. Safe to say, if time was money, I’d be the next Elon (but less of the actual, y’know, Elon-ness). But if money was money (hear me out), currently I have not much at all, personally. What I’m trying to say is that there are loads of other things that are also good. (I hate that 9-5 ‘work’ is normal and love a good wallow around in the possibility of a rose-tinted utopia. But this is not the time or place! Also, big awareness that money is a thing we need in our current society, and all of the issues that come along with that, and the lack thereof).

     

    • Not doing things for myself: this is a work-in-progress, an ongoing theme in therapy, and something I regret looking back years and years. But, better late than never – I’m getting there and this is something I want to talk more about on the blog, the whole process of rediscovery – or discovery, as I’m not sure I ever knew myself properly. It’s like I’m an onion and each layer peeled back is a surprise – “Oh! I can actually do that? I’m allowed?”. Safe to say, I’ve got my first tattoo booked in, I’m learning that I can ‘be creative’, and the brighter clothes (and huger earrings) the better. I’m taking the first tentative steps, but looking forward to peeling more of those layers (without the obligatory onion crying of course). I just figure it’s so much effort to fit in and I’m just so tired, so see ya later to all of that.

     

    • Pretending I haven’t got a chronic illness or neurodiversity: I am over it. Yes, I get tired. I can’t organise myself out of a paper bag. Some days I need to just become one with a blanket. I can’t remember what I did last week, or this morning, or an hour ago, or annoyingly literally five minutes ago. But I can remember every single word to PJ and Duncan’s debut album (is that a brag? I’m thinking yes). I know that there is a paperclip in an old business card holder in the second drawer down on the third shelf in the office. My mind thinks in universes, but doesn’t know how to start a single thing. Things that are boring are impossible. I have to stop myself doing stuff when I feel fine, because if I don’t then there will be at least a 3 day waiting period before I can do anything else. Some days I’m buzzing, some days I’m buzzed out. I don’t feel bad about it any more. It kind of links into the previous point, I think. It just is, and I just am, and that is all.

     

    It’s weird that even typing that all out is a mixture of anxiety and worry about it being ‘out there’, and a relief at the same. It’s taken 40 years to kind of realise that “I can’t be arsed with it” is actually a legitimate life rule and one that I am finding copious joy in applying. I’d love to hear what you can no longer be arsed with, also.

    But, although I am loving the gradual process of letting stuff go, there are actually things I want to lean into, as well.

     

    …and holding on

     

    It’s taken a loooong time and a lot of therapy to get to the point where I am actually starting to put myself together as a person. Lots of reasons and I’m sure no one wants to hear all of that stuff, but the upshot is that I can play and wear things and believe and be good at things and take up space and be a woman and celebrate that and all the bits that come along with being a sentient being on this little planet. So, let’s find things to hold on to. Here are mine:

     

    • Doing things for physical health and mental health: I used to be very healthy, and have become less so, for a multitude of reasons. Everything is relative – there is no one size fits all. So letting go of comparison (a biggie, still a work in progress) and choosing things for health is something I am doing!  I can’t stick to a routine, so embracing the rise and fall of interest, tentatively making friends with this body, (although body positivity is beyond me – I’m more of a neutral kinda person right now, and that’s a good place for me) and doing things to keep it going for a few more years at least. No diets, no exercise plans, no rules. Just choices in the moment, and moving a little more, as I can, when I can. Owning those days when I need to do less, or do something wild, or just hide from the world, or be in the world. It’s all good.

     

    • Advocating for myself: This is frustrating, and I’ve got a lot of self-internalised bias, and slowly those walls are coming down which is a good thing. Asking for help, exercising my rights, making sure I don’t just go ‘ahh it’s ok I don’t want to be any trouble’ (as much as I want to). Not apologising for how I am, not trying to make myself small, or agreeable. Doing things I want to, taking opportunities. Owning those parts of me that usually I want to change to fit in. Being confident in my choices. Bring it on!

     

    • Embracing play: I played a lot as a kid, and that was excellent. Somehow that disappeared totally and I missed it. This new of re/discovery is a good time to re/discover playing for playing’s sake. Doodling. Drawing. Wandering. Playing music, making music, creating, singing, making NOISE! Bouncing around to a song in my head. Getting excited about things and places and ideas. Ideas! Following a train of thought and becoming so enthusiastic (and not bothering that I’ll never figure out how to start). Short-term, intense interest. Re-discovering old interests! Finding things out. CURIOSITY! More of this, much more.

     

    • Generally existing: I’ve spent my life flitting between personalities according to who I’m talking to (that rejection sensitive dysphoria got me good). Putting a name to that, and finding a reason (turns out I’m not just a crap person) has been wildly illuminating and the resulting freedom is rather enjoyable. It still happens, but I know it happens, and I can now try and figure out who, what, and why I am, at this moment in time. We all change, in time, in location, even day to day. But overarchingly, there are some constants. Existing and being able to say “yes, I believe this”, “yes I think that”, “yes I am this” and not just blindly agree with whatever the other person says to avoid any sort of criticism… it’s crazy to me! What a feeling! To exist, as a whole, as your self?! Wow. It’s blowing my mind. There’s always that tinge of sadness that it’s taken me this long to get here, but that’s ok. Everything needed to take this long.

     

    So, I’m not sure that made any sense at all, but I feel better for writing it all down, so I suppose that’s a net positive. Everything is still very much a new thing, and there are forwards steps and backwards steps, and not really an end goal, just the turning of a corner and a new kind of light hitting my eyes.  I’m curious if anyone else has felt similar. Letting go of things, moving forward with others, feeling more settled, enjoying the journey of growing older but not necessarily wiser!

    I’m all typed out now. Time for a cuppa!

    (I have just remembered that I was going to hang the washing out, back up at the top of the post! The rain has retreated over the side of the valley. I’m going to chance it. This could be a mistake). 

    (I wish I could write this many words for my university course).

    Sal x

     

    Blue sky with white fluffy clouds. Text box below reads 'mid-life identity, letting go and holding on: rediscovery'.

    Five people in silhouette, jumping in front of a late sunset. Text below reads 'mid-life identity: giving yourself permission to be'.

     

     

  • Blog,  Making Things

    I’m so bad at art

    I never thought I could ‘do’ art, as much as I enjoyed it. It was something out of reach, for other people who I thought were way more creative than me. It was something I was told I had to give up at school and instead choose subjects that would help me get a ‘real job’. Now I’m tentatively giving a bit more space to that little voice that quite enjoys creating things. At forty, it feels like paying attention to a younger version of myself, rediscovering a part of me I chose to leave back in 1997, consciously leaving art behind to study another GCSE that I didn’t want to do at all. The past is the past, though. Now, it’s about the enjoyment of rediscovery. It’s newness, it’s challenge – and mostly, it’s pretty fun.

    I’m so bad at art

    I’ve told myself this my whole life. The bar is quite high in our family, full of wonderful artists, designers and generally creative people. But the act of translating what was in my head to something on paper is something I’ve always found hard, and as a result over the years I just left it behind, as something I was ‘rubbish at’. I’ve found a few things I enjoyed – pyrography, metal clay, making a bit of jewellery – but always had a huge hang up about actual ‘art’, as I defined it to myself. Because I am not instantly Rembrandt or Picasso I think I’m terrible at it. Recently, though, I’ve felt it’s time to rethink how I’ve looked at ‘art’, and looked at myself. I’m challenging myself to get over that feeling of inadequacy, and to begin to enjoy the process of art as a thing in itself, rather than beating myself up about the end result. And if I end up still feeling inadequate, then that’s ok, too. I want to enjoy the process, rather than worry about the things I’m drawing being any good.

    Redefining art

    I love the process of getting so lost in something I lose track of time. I love to have a project in my mind and to sit and work at it until it’s done, just being in that moment, not hearing, not seeing anything outside of it until my eyes are blurry and I can’t remember the last thing I ate. Much of the time, although I like the end result, it’s the process that is the reward for me – I find the same with a lot of things I do. If it’s interesting to me, the act of ‘doing’ highly outweighs the project being ‘done’. With this in mind, I figured that the ‘doing’ is going to be a big thing for me. What do I get? I get a sense of fun, of enjoyment. If I remove all the pressure to ‘draw something’ and just make colours, and textures, and crazy shapes, then that is something I want to engage in. So one evening, I tipped the contents of my long-forgotten art box over the conservatory table, and began making a mess.

    The joy of mess

    I found a load of mica and oxide powders from the time I decided to make my own eyeshadow, and some jagged shards of brass left over from the time I was really into making jewellery. I went with the flow and just poured mica onto some paper, and smudged it around with my fingers. I imagined I was painting on cave walls with earth pigment – I made dots, I dragged long lines down the page with my fingers, I smudged red into yellow into brown and watched as the colours became ingrained into my fingerprints. I made some muddy squish by dipping my fingers into water. I scattered brass pieces onto the page, and moved them around, looking at the shadows. Was this art? Yes, I told myself. This is your art – the process, the curiosity. What had I made? A huge mess, that’s what. But did I feel better afterwards? Absolutely.

    I'm so bad at art mess

    Lines and Mountains

    I took a sketchbook to Scotland recently, as we tackled the North Coast 500. The daunting blank pages, the fine liners, the local galleries brimming with stunning paintings. I wanted to make time to just sit and draw, I wanted to switch off from the hustle and bustle of thoughts in my mind. I wanted to practise, and get used to that immediate fear that grips me whenever I think about drawing a ‘thing’. It took me a few days to get the sketchbook out of my rucksack, to open my roll of pens, to sit in my little camping chair, look at a mountain, and try and translate the sloping sides to something that looked vaguely similar on the paper. It was terrifying – the stress of trying to draw something that actually existed. Letting go of the expectation and the disappointment of not being an instant master illustrator is hard, but once I got into it, again, it was the process that calmed my racing thoughts. I felt myself relax into it, looking at those huge, silent, powerful mountains, taking in sharp lines and shadows, scree and heather. Letting go of perfection, letting my pen skid around on the page, drawing and overdrawing lines, breathing slower and feeling that focus slowly take me over.

    I drew every day after that, until we came home. I made a small zine of our trip, little funny drawings of stuff that happened each day. My sketchbook now has a few mountains and lakes, some terribly out of perspective woodlands and some messed up campsite sketches where the disconnect between my eyes, brain and hands is embarrassingly apparent. The difference now is that I remember drawing those sketches. I remember the process, and I’m quite fond of the end results, weirdly skew-whiff as they are.

    I'm so bad at art

    More and more

    I think I’ll draw more. I’m enrolled on a beginners animation course currently which is challenging me to draw a lot more than I would do otherwise. It’s quite nice to have homework, something that forces me to take time to sit down and play around with art stuff, even it it’s just a felt tip or a pipe cleaner. The biggest freedom for me is that shift in focus from the result to the ‘doing’ part. It’s something that’s come up in other areas of life, but applying it to creativity has been really illuminating and quite freeing. Removing the expectation of having something amazing at the end and being inevitably disappointed has just left behind the enjoyment of creation, instead. And that enjoyment is something I’d quite like to experience more. And more, and more.

    I'm so bad at art

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