Away from the NHS frontline

Away from the NHS frontline
Feb. 2021
Written by Dr Jack Milln 
We wondered how long it would last, and whether we’d get through it; but here we are, almost one year on. We’ve all been on some little journey of our own. 

I’ve spent the year working full-time in hospitals which has been a strange mix of total stress and absolute privilege, exciting one moment and truly harrowing the next. Others have been navigating work from home, reconfiguring their lives and businesses, worrying about loved ones. There has, however, been one constant hopeful thread since the very beginning of the pandemic, which is a great credit to the optimism of the human spirit; that lingering question, ‘what good could come of all this?

So many people have been brought closer to nature this year, whether it be from a renewed sense of curiosity, free from the daily grind, or just pure boredom. Either way, people have been forced to look out into their own garden or local patch, just that little bit harder, and with a bit more time to spare. We’ve had to be creative about how we spend out time; pubs and restaurants have been largely shut, so it’s off for a long walk, whatever the weather.


Looking back, I’ve been a slightly fair weather camper over the years. That all changed when we found ourselves up a hillside in the peak district in late October, in the drizzle, suffering close to freezing temperatures. The constant reminder of restrictions was getting to us, beginning to tighten once again around that time. So we packed the paniers, got the bikes on the train, and headed up to the Peaks. This was my first time using my GROUNDTRUTH RIKR backpack and it fitted the bill completely. Before we knew it we were sandwiched between big skies and autumnal colours, and rocky outcrops became our al fresco kitchens. 


Back in London and back to work, which means long shifts, and a lot of time indoors. Unfortunately as the seasons changed, so did the nations fortunes; restrictions were tightened again, and travel on the train was a distant memory. So it was time to get creative again - what adventures could we have close to home? In my shed was an old inflatable paddleboard, gathering dust since I moved off my canal boat and onto land. 

What could be a better form of socially-distanced exercise than paddling down the river on our own? We are lucky to have some amazingly characterful parts of the London canal network right on our doorstep. Getting both of us onto one paddle board is much more fun, and we usually have most of the GROUNDTRUTH bag range bungeed on the front. It takes a bit of teamwork but it’s lovely to chat about everything you come across . We’ve been out on rainy days, icy days, and sunny days too. I never would have thought to get out paddling at this time of year, but I’m not sure I’ll ever look back. 

Last week took us to a beautiful part of the river Lea between Tottenham and Hackney. The Lea valley is a real gem and it always amazes me how few people know about it. I’ve never been out on the board in mid-February, and wouldn’t have thought it a great time to spot interesting birds. Our first exciting encounter was with a very shy bird called a Treecreeper. In all my years of birding I think I’ve only seen one, and at a distance. We were floating slowly along the riverbank enjoying a flock of Long tailed tits, hopping between branches and chattering away. Then bang, about two meters away, the Treecreeper darted down and danced on the bark right in front of us. He showed us the white buff of his belly and did exactly what he’s designed to for, creep around the tree, then up and out of sight. Enormous excitement on the board, and we just about managed to stay stable, everyone dry at least for now. I couldn’t believe it. 

We paddled further down admiring the cormorants drying their sodden wings, silhouetted against the increasingly stormy sky. Suddenly I was alerted by my paddling companion to some movement at the water margin. ‘Just a Moorhen’, I pronounced; seen it all before of course. But she kept on, and sure enough, this seemed to be something a little different. The bird crept deeper into the vegetation and then stopped. We stopped. Everything was very still and very quiet. We moved ever so slightly closer - we didn’t want to just scare the bird and flush them out. We were so close now we couldn’t believe the bird could still be there. Then some sudden movement and the bird appeared on the bank, alerted but not overtly frightened. Glossy bluish-grey underparts catching the light, a rufous back, white barring on the flank, and a long reddish bill. I couldn’t remember the name at first, I had never seen the bird in real life, and then it came to me, the timid Water Rail. What an amazing bird to see so close. What a wonderful way to meet such a secret creature, slowly, at water level, and under our own steam. We heated up our leftover soup on a camping stove, finished our now lukewarm tea, and headed home satisfied. I never would have thought mid-January would bring adventures on the river and encounters such as these.


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