Friday, May 26, 2023

Letting go... and its opposite

Garn Fawr - the big cairn - near to Strumble Head

Some subjects are too big for blogging.  

For weeks - months, in truth - I've been in a sort of Sargasso Sea with my writing; thoughts swirling and circling as I ponder not so much what to say as how (and where) to start. Until the other day my son asked me if I had a subject in mind and I replied without hesitation, 'letting go': a response that hints at a desire to simplify and pare back to what's essential, important... immediate.

My father-in-law is dying.  

Five weeks ago he suffered a stroke of sorts, or at least that's the simplest way to describe it.  He's with us thanks only to tubes and the consummate care of his nurses. Occasional moments of lucidity are contextualised by his living in a delerium-induced world of hallucinations and fears. The prolongation of his life is undignified and not what he would want; the pain palpable to all who love(d) him...

We are selling our former family home.

And about time too in my view, but not in Jane's, who's taken eighteen months to come around to the emotional and physical connections its sale will sever.  In terms of sentiment, I guess I'd cashed out early, but it's never that simple. We invest more than money in bricks and mortar despite our obsession with prices, equity and putative property ladders...  

My son will soon be leaving.

In September, exam results allowing, my youngest boy will go to university — the same one I attended forty years ago; studying the same subject too.  How life turns in circles I thought... Except I'm bereft at the prospect of his leaving; willing the wheel of his life to spin, yet yearning for a friction that would slow it just a little... 

I'm getting older and feel it keenly.

Not so much in my body as my view of the future. When I left home at eighteen, my mid-twenties seemed an age away, retirement beyond any imaginable horizon. Now life's skyline feels closer and more focused; its infinite possibilities for the first time closing in. This is not a bad thing, nor one that I fear, but it involves making choices, not the least of which is the release of pretence as well as possessions...

We are here but an instant.

This week I went with Jane to Strumble Head, as elemental a place as any I know: the ocean, the wind, the neolithic hill fort and the spring squill on the path...  Standing on its ancient rocks, you can see the curve of the earth and sense the juxtaposition of time's eternity and flux in every surge of the tide...

More than ever I'm determined.

Intent on navigating a course through the flotsam and jetsam of life's Sargasso Sea that I began with.  To do so, I've realised, requires not a bucket list or some egotistical attempt at immortality — but a delicate balance of love and loss, of caution and creativity, of holding on and letting go...

As I said, some subjects are too big for blogging.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Spring reflections and renewal.

Spring sunshine in the Haute Savoie

If I could choose the manner and place of my last day on earth, I think a high contender would be springtime in the Alps. It’s true that summer is the season of my fondest climbs (limited though they are) and winter can be breathtaking in its majesty. As for the autumn, the reddening of the beech trees by my house are an annual – and joyful - reminder of the turning of the years.

But spring is extra special.

Two weeks ago there was a late snowfall in the Haute Savoie, ironically providing the best skiing of the season, just as the lifts were closing. Yet I didn’t go high; instead, I walked in the foothills, accompanied by the chatter of birdsong, the white noise of the meltwater and the soundtrack in my head, putting the world to rights as usual…

Everywhere, buds were sprouting, the meadows turning from dun to lush; a rogue hyacinth momentarily convincing me an orchid had bloomed. And am I alone in thinking that spring air smells (and tastes) like nothing else – a fragrance that can’t be bottled, but is free for us all to delight in.

Back home in Wales, it’s the season of yellows and creams, of gorse and blackthorn, cowslips and dandelion. But yesterday, as I sat in my garden, an iridescent speck landed on my chair; an Adonis Blue butterfly, and a perfectly formed reminder that soon the flowers in Pembrokeshire's hedgerows will be that colour too. It’s been a tough winter in more ways than one, but there’s no greater tonic than nature’s renewal.

It’s time, I thought, to start looking ahead; to plan for the summer and brighter days. Later, I opened my diary and smiled as its pages filled with possibilities. For this is not my last day on earth, rather, it’s the first of what remains. And while I may no longer have the vigour of youth, I’ve the same lust for life that was awakened in the Alps, almost fifty years ago.

Every year since, it’s spring which reminds me how precious that is.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Bike shed live...

As bloggers, we share our words but seldom our faces and even less so our voices.  But when it comes to books, there's a tradition of authors promoting their work. Last week I did just that with an online launch of Views From The Bike Shed - and a writer's guide to blogging.

I often struggle with publicity but was delighted to be supported by blogging friends and humbled that some truly great writers took the time to attend too. As usual, our discussion started with blogging but ended up touching on writing and the world in general... There were some interesting questions that included the importance of blogging, whether AI will make creative writing less relevant, and how I approach writing from life.

The launch was recorded by my publisher Cinnamon Press - and you can view it here.

Or try this long link.

I'd love to hear what you think about it.

Monday, March 27, 2023

The threads we weave

Cap de Formentor, Mallorca

Every month I write the editorial for an alpine e-journal. It's a task I enjoy, but this weekend, as I drafted my column, I had the niggling worry my words weren't concerned with mountaineering at all. I’d just returned from a cycle camp in Mallorca, which although an active break, isn't really of interest to climbers. And yet, by the time I’d finished writing, I realised my time there was just as relevant as any report of snow conditions in the Alps.

For no sooner had I signed into our hotel in Alcudia than one of the organisers greeted me with a hug and the news that her daughter was having a baby. I was delighted too, because I’ve known Jacquie and her husband Andy for over thirty years, going back to days when we rode tandems and would meet at time trials around the country. As fate would have it, we’d end up living in the same town, our children racing and riding together, just as we had.

And then there was Kate, who I’ve known almost as long – and Kirsty and Mark who once holidayed at our house, and Cathy and Clive, relative newcomers at a decade’s friendship… I could go on, but you get the picture. 

My eight days in Mallorca saw me lose half a stone, ride 400 miles, and rejoice in a landscape where lemon trees are as common as laurels here in Wales. But, what most gladdened my heart wasn't so much the sunshine or even the miles we covered, as the sense of a weaving of threads – the warp and weft of the friendships that run through our lives — in this case, patterned by a passion for bikes, but it could just as easily have been bezique.

Which is where the relevance to climbing lies. 

Reflecting on the activities I have loved all my life, I was struck by how bound they are to the friendships they've fostered. The same pattern occurs time and again, whether it be walking or kayaking or skiing or more recently, motorcycling. Even my writing, a solitary pursuit if there was one, is intimately connected to those who read and comment and trust... 

...and tell me to stop when I'm going on too long!  

But before I do, I suppose what I realised in drafting my notes this weekend, is actually pretty obvious. That whether I'm cycling in Mallorca, climbing in the Alps, or writing in West Wales, it's the people that matter as much as the practice. For our true passions, whatever they may be, are inevitably bonded to those we share our experiences with —and to separate the two would be to diminish both sides of the equation. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

An invitation to join me online... please register!

My new book - available here 

Earlier this month my latest book Views From The Bike Shed  - and a writer's guide to blogging was published by Cinnamon Press. Since its launch I've been delighted by the positive feedback and messages of support from those who've read it.

I've always been clear that my blogging and the book is not about me. Indeed, I'm especially keen that it gives other bloggers a greater profile, showing that our craft can be a serious form as well as a fun and engaging way to connect with others.

So can I shamelessly ask for your support!

My publisher is hosting an online launch on Thursday 30 March (7.30 p.m UK time). At the event, I will be reading from the book, answering questions and encouraging a discussion on blogging and what it means. It would be wonderful if some of my blogging friends and followers registered to attend too.  

There is a small registration fee of £2.00 but in return, you get a  discount code for the book (and others from Cinnamon). If you can't make the time then the event will be recorded and you can catch it later.

To be honest, I feel terribly self-conscious asking for support, but if you've enjoyed Views From The Bike Shed over the years - and if you love blogging -  please can I ask you to sign up.  It would make such a difference to see some faces from the blogosphere - but perhaps more to the point, it would enrich the discussion to have other regular bloggers there too. 

And PS -  as a special treat, I might even allow my Oscar to join me online!

Registration link - click here

Below is the bumpf from my publisher 

We are thrilled to be launching Views from the Bike Shed by Mark Charlton, the next in our series of books for writers from our imprint Down Deep Books.

For Mark Charlton, blogging is ‘a road of chance and discovery’, one which has shaped the person he’s become; a journey that is ‘happenstance on acid.’

In Views From The Bike Shed he not only shares a selection of engaging, articulate and deeply-felt posts from the eponymous blog, but also charts his praxis as a writer. Advocating for blogging as a process and form that deserves serious attention, Charlton shows how it changes our writing and opens up unexpected opportunities along the way.

Come and explore

-- why blogging is such a rich resource in our writerly and human toolbox

-- how writing from our experience can become an inclusive and authentic means of connecting with readers

-- blogging as a vital meditation on the ways writers can push their own boundaries through this medium.

And more...

Come to listen and come with your questions.

The event will begin at 7.30 p.m. on Thursday March 30 and will include a Q&A session with the online audience after the reading.

We’re asking you to register so that we can manage the online space and there’s a small registration fee of £2 which you can offset by using the discount code to buy the pamphlets, available at the launch.

You can register here and we look forward to seeing you.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Ticks and trails

Walking in the Haute Savoie

Recently, I was telling a friend how I planned to walk a path north from Chamonix towards Lake Geneva this June. It would take about 6 days and I wondered if he’d like to come along.

‘Oh, excellent,’ he replied, ‘that’s the GR5 isn’t it?’

Not exactly, I explained, as I thought we’d make it up a bit. What’s more, the mountain huts on the official trail are always busy and there’s a boring section that’s easily avoided. If we stayed a little to the west there’s a much quieter route to follow.

This suggestion didn’t go down so well. And what followed was a candid conversation, the central point of which was that I was keen to find a path less travelled, while my pal would rather follow the official way; if not, he’d probably pass.

It would be easy to dismiss my friend’s approach as overly purist. But I think to do so would risk denying that for many people walking (or cycling) named trails is part of their motivation. Aside from the ease of planning and availability of guidebooks, ‘official routes’ offer the prospect of a shared experience, as well as the satisfaction of completing a challenge that others can relate to. Indeed, my first ever long-distance walk was Wainwright’s coast-to-coast, the most popular trail in Britain.

But I do sometimes wonder if we’ve taken it too far.

There are now hundreds – yes, hundreds! - of long-distance footpaths in the UK, many of which you have to question the purpose they’re serving. How many folk, for example, have walked the 630-mile Cistercian way linking the monasteries of Wales? Do niche trails like these really justify the way markers and even notation on our maps?

The proliferation of marked tours is much the same in the Alps, where to be fair the consequences of personal route finding can be more severe – if perhaps also more rewarding. In the end, my friend and I compromised and all is set for an adventure this summer. Most importantly, we‘ve agreed to take it as it comes...

Which is good. Because I think we both realised that if the ‘tick’ or ‘trail’ becomes more important than the time together, we’d be veering off route regardless.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Not-a-lotta' otter!

In a lifetime of nature watching I'd never seen an otter in the wild. I've found their tracks, identified their scat, and missed their presence by seconds on countless kayak trips and river walks. Where I live there are regular sightings (increasing over the years) and yet always I seemed to be in the right place at the wrong time, or whatever combination resulted in a no-show!

Yesterday it seemed was no different...

Jane and I walked for almost two hours around the lakes and streams at Bosherston in Pembrokeshire - an otter 'hot spot' according to the National Trust. Not that we expected any luck. Indeed, so sure were we that we'd not see one that we reminisced about the days when our older boys were small and we used to say that if anyone spotted an otter (verified of course) then we'd reward them with £100. This was mainly a ruse to keep them occupied but had they been successful I'd have gladly paid up.

As the sun began to dip, it seemed our bank balance would be safe for another day...

Until driving home we passed the bridge at Pembroke and Jane noticed that a crowd had gathered with cameras at the ready.  

'I wonder if they've spotted an ...' she said?  

Stop the car! I cried.

A quick u-turn and I was out, running towards the bridge, iPhone in hand, scanning the millpond for movement... And sure enough, there in full view of the town centre was my first ever otter spot!. Not exactly the wilderness location I'd imagined, but who cares about that.  I beckoned Jane from the car and she managed a sighting too. 

 So sorry boys, but mum and dad got there first - we'll share that hundred quid on a treat together.  

Meanwhile, I wonder if otters will now be like buses - you wait all day and then three come along at once!

I rather hope so.