CLIMB the same mountain every day for a year and you will never experience the same day twice.
This also holds true during these days of lockdown and restriction. By staying local you may be following the same paths, the same circuit, at the same times, but each day there are subtle differences.
What starts out as a typical morning routine will quickly evolve, constant surprises to punctuate the familiar along the way. Nature has its own set of rules.
Mostly, it begins with silence. The empty country lane is untroubled by cars and vans. Spring hedgerows and verges are resplendent with wild flowers and new growth, bees and butterflies in abundance, the generous aroma of wild garlic. A refulgent morning; sunshine spreading brilliant light, if not warmth, across the fields, the sea a glittering silver sheet. Birdsong the only sound cutting through the silence.
Turning on to one of our network paths, a narrow strip dissecting two fields. One day the ground is earthen ridge and furrow, but with each consecutive day the green grows stronger until it has colonised the entire area. From a stance of trees, the air is filled with the raucous calls of rooks from their high-rise city in the swaying branches, as they take turns to join the avian commuter rush to the fields for breakfast.
Another short section of road, then down to the shoreline. Soft sand and ruffles of dark seaweed, rock pools stretching to the distant water line, skeletons of crabs left behind by the tide's latest retreat. One ridge of rock stands prominent in the calm sea, a favourite sunbathing spot for cormorants, their wings spread wide as they stand like statues soaking up the rays. The variety of gulls, ducks, waders and other seabirds is extensive: it's hard to know where to start without a handy identification manual.
Every once in a while there's an audible hum from the rail line, then the ghost train sweeps past, shuttling back and forth on the regular run between stations but with empty carriages, operating on auto-pilot. A final swoosh, then the return to silence.
Walking in sand can be hard, a good workout for the leg muscles and a jog to the recent memory of ploughing through snowy slopes now beyond reach. The beach opens out; the constant of the water sweeping gently in, reclaiming the territory temporarily loaned to the land, indistinguishable from the distant horizon or the cloying sands; sky, sea and sand presented as one, a peaceful watercolour.
On days when the water is high, there's fun running the gauntlet over the last slivers of sands below the sea wall, on tiptoe through the lapping surf. And when the land is completely submerged, there's always a higher line, a boulder hop along the barrier. A flutter and flash amongst the rocks, a cluster of turnstones take off en masse, switching location to resettle further along, their ranks infiltrated by a couple of knots looking slightly bewildered by the sudden invasion of their privacy.
The terrain changes again, now a sandy path following the water's edge through the dunes, beach grasses and brilliant yellow gorse of the golf course. The maze of tracks and paths ahead offers multiple choice, but I stick with the rough track that curves round the entirety of this strangely silent golfers' paradise, the greens now the domain of oystercatchers and pied wagtails. Sand martins perform aerial acrobatics above the burn.
The noise of the incoming water below is regimented, the beach stretching as far as the eye can see. Some days it is fierce and grey, others a gleaming and sparkling mix of silver and blue. The soothing sound soon recedes, however, and as the tree cover increases so again does the chorus of birdsong. Chaffinch are the pin-ups bobbing along the branches.
I catch a slight movement amongst the reeds on my left, moorhen poking and probing for food. Round the corner, the water opens out to reveal a family of tufted ducks and a ragtag collection of mallard and coots, each observing their social distancing from a lone swan.
The next pond is home to a pair of nesting mute swans, the female sitting amidst a huge, hollowed out pile of vegetation which has grown exponentially over the past fortnight, the male tearing up and delivering more raw material to his partner while at the same time keeping a wary eye out for possible intruders.
At one point it looks as though he feels the need for a change of scenery; a flap of the wings and a rapid acceleration along the watery runway, breaching his sound barrier with the slapping on the water then the high-pressure flapping of his wings, before he has lift-off.
It's a magnificent experience watching this display of grace and power as he rises then swings round in a low arc before skimming across and landing again in a neighbouring pond, a fresh hunting ground. Moments like these have come as a revelation during lockdown, finding hidden gems right under your feet that would have probably remained unseen, unknown.
The return circuit varies slightly, small tweaks depending on mood and weather conditions, but there's always one last nature call, watching the squirrels play hide and seek in the park. There is one constant – the litter pick-up. It's encouraging to note a continuing improvement since first venturing out with my bag from Mountaineering Scotland's TakItHame campaign.
Some of this can be put down to quieter times, but hopefully it's also part of a greater awareness of the need to keep our home ground beautiful. And hopefully it will continue long after this is all over.