“An astonishing number of stars revealed themselves”
Only a few years ago the onset of dark evenings was the start of months of being restricted to evening pavement pounding in the street-lit bubbles of our towns. Significant improvements in lights technology over the last decade have completely changed this. The days of huge battery packs on the bike or clipped to a running belt are long gone. Now you can get a running specific headtorch for less than a month’s membership at the gym. This provides a bright bubble of light for 12 hours at a time and has opened the door to an entirely new type of adventure.
Ten years ago, I ran the Bob Graham Round in the Lake District; 42 peaks and 65 miles with a target of under 24 hours. I softened up my running friends Andy and Duncan with a couple of pints of bitter and dreams of the beauty of running at dawn then, with a fuzzy head, reminded them of their commitment the next morning. A few days later we were stumbling around in the woods in a weak pool of light trying – not entirely successfully – to avoid running headlong into trees. Those first forays into the dark were nervous affairs. We jumped at rustling in the woods, cracking twigs and even sometimes at our own breathing. I guess we are programmed to be afraid of what we can’t see.
With more and more people looking to experience new ways to push themselves, running, cycling and even swimming events in the dark are becoming increasingly popular. In December I am heading off to Wales to race the new Exodus Ultra race. This is 100 miles along the Beacons Way setting off in the evening and running the first half through the night over the Brecon Beacons. With this in mind, I headed off into the dark in Sussex to test my mettle.
We are lucky in Sussex to have only the 12th Dark Sky Reserve in the world. The South Downs reserve covers around two-thirds of the National Park and enforces limitations on the type and extent of lighting in the area in order to protect and improve our view of the night sky. The widest section of the reserve centres on Midhurst in West Sussex and so, having waited for a clear night, I set out in that direction on the bike for a multisport nighttime adventure.
Clear skies meant cold temperatures and it wasn’t long before my breath was causing an eerie mist to drift past the front light. The roads were quiet and as the last of the light faded I settled into a steady rhythm and adjusted to the still night. The plan was to run a loop close to Midhurst, away from the towns and villages to maximise my chances of taking in the night sky. After rolling below the dark silhouette of the South Downs ridge, I found a spot to leave the bike and headed up to the crest to take in the views.
After so long in the saddle, my legs were stiff as I picked my way through the woodland towards the ridgeline. Owls hooted, foxes scampered across the path and nocturnal rummaging could be heard in the woods. From behind a deep rooty bank, a cloud of strange green lights floated across the path. Deprived of input, my brain struggled to grapple with what was in front of me. Walkers with torches? Are they glowsticks? Eyes narrowed,
For many of us, striving to be more eco-friendly has been the theme of 2018. Slow living, zero waste and conscious consumerism are all familiar buzzwords at this point. Most of us rarely leave the house without our reusable coffee cup, and the idea of paying 5p for a plastic bag when you could bring your canvas tote from home is unthinkable. Yet, when it comes to Christmas all our hard won eco credentials tend to fall by the wayside in the desperate rush to be ready in time for 25 December.
But despite the pressure to have the perfect Christmas – while, of course, also dealing with all of life’s non-seasonal demands – there are a few simple changes we can make to celebrate the holidays in a way that keeps the environmental impact right to a minimum.
The first and perhaps most important thing to consider is where you shop. While most major brands are working towards a more sustainable future, many of the big name chains’ practices leave a lot to be desired, so to find truly sustainable, environmentally conscious gifts chances are you’ll need to move out of your retail comfort zone. Ethical clothing brand Sancho’s ( sanchosshop. com) sell a beautiful range of clothes, jewellery and accessories that are made with minimal environmental impact by well remunerated artisans around the world, as well as a selection of products that are completely plastic free. Kalkidan Legesse, owner of the ethical shop, recommends avoiding the temptation to buy gifts with a Christmas theme – instead favouring items the recipient will be able to use year-round, for many years to come.
Eager eco-conscious shoppers might also visit the shops of their favourite charities, many of which feature a high quality selection of Fairtrade, recycled and sustainable gifts. Amnesty International’s shop ( amnestyshop.org.uk) has a particularly lovely collection, with ten per cent of all profits funding their important work.
When we’re not thinking about gifts, we’re planning lunch and with the help of Riverford Organic Farmers ( riverford. co.uk) it is simple to craft a Christmas Day menu that is as environmentally friendly as it is delicious. Riverford is an organic home delivery service providing a variety of box options including vegetables, fruit and meat. The food is, of course, organic, so produced with methods that protect natural resources and wildlife, and much of it cultivated on Riverford’s own land, which uses exclusively green energy from renewable resources. And, as an added bonus, a Riverford box uses on average 77 per cent less packaging than your regular supermarket shop. Riverford recommend those keen on an eco-friendly Christmas to cook less meat, and instead let veg take centre stage of their seasonal feast. Their motto is less and better – fantastic, fresh vegetables combined with a little bit of good meat as a treat.
Finally, the elephant in the room, the most crucial and most wasteful part of Christmas: gift wrapping. Even the most environmentally conscious heart turns cold at the thought of an unwrapped gift, but luckily there are a few alternatives out there. Made of 100 per cent recycled paper, the beautiful and quirky designs from Re-wrapped ( re-wrapped.co.uk) will look marvellous under your tree, while the minds behind Wrag Wrap ( wragwrap.com) have created a gorgeous reusable fabric gift wrap including a range of shapes and designs to accommodate every present.
In 2018 eco-friendly living cemented its place as a vital part of mainstream culture. The intensive accumulation at Christmas seems at odds with the values of sustainability, but with only a few adjustments it’s easy to celebrate the season in a way that is eco-friendly and no less festive for it.
Scrambling through a dense forest on the whim of a couple of dogs may not seem like the wisest of ideas, but with the promise of fresh English truffles a bit of mud and a few bramble scratches are a small price to pay.
The dogs in question are Saxon and Valentino – two Lagotto Romagnolos who originally hail from Italy and have been specially bred and trained to hunt truffles. The dogs are owned by Tom Lywood, a very quirky character and one the UK’S few professional truffle hunters.
Tom started the hunt with a very theatrical blow of a ceremonial horn that he had specially made for occasions such as this.
His enthusiasm, however, quickly turned into a deep cynicism about out chances of finding any truffles that day. The long hot summer, he explained, meant that the ground was too dry for truffles to grow, adding that we’re “more likely to find truffles by Cowdray’s Café and Farm Shop”. Indeed, he elaborated that there are potentially more truffles in suburbia than can be found in woodland these days.
Undeterred we set out after the dogs with a feeling that even if we didn’t find any truffles that the rare chance to enjoy Cowdray’s woodland on such a warm autumnal day was reward enough. But as luck would have it we managed to find five truffles – with the last one a bit of a whopper.
Hopefully we didn’t raid the forest’s entire bounty, for the next day paying guests took part in a hunt of their own, enjoying a truffle-themed meal at Cowdray’s café afterwards. Our truffles were enjoyed as canapés as part of a special dinner at Cowdray House – the estate’s beautiful exclusive use venue.
The meal consisted of five delicious courses and was cooked by Ben Jupp, supported by Jason Scott and Curtis Wingate – all from the estate’s café. The standout dish was the truffle butter confit venison, with the meat responsible sourced from the estate’s own deer population.
With a full belly and after an extremely comfortable and luxurious night’s stay at Cowdray House, I rose at 6am to join forest manager Richard Everett and deer manager Jason Griffin to learn about how the forest is managed and hopefully hear the distinct sounds of rutting deer as the sun rose. Unfortunately, the deer must have thought better about the early rise and stayed silent but we did spot a couple on our journey back through the forest – where we also learned how the population is managed.
Jason explained that “caring for its land and concern for animal welfare” are central to the estate’s pursuance of a sustainable and environmentally responsible farming policy. A small team of deer stalkers are given permission to shoot the estate’s deer each year, with the meat used to supply the estate’s café and farm shop’s butchers. And with venison season in full swing, now is a great time to try it.