Bristol is a beautiful city: full of history, art, architecture and colour. Unfortunately, it seems a large number of its residents are missing out on their beautiful surroundings: their smartphone screens are clearly infinitely more interesting!

Almost everyone I pass on the street in Bristol is looking down…instead of looking where they’re going!

I picked up on this peculiar behaviour almost as soon as I moved here a year ago. I found myself playing pedestrian ping-pong on my way down the street, dodging from one side of the pavement to the other to avoid the smartphone zombies walking directly towards me. A two-mile walk to work became a four-mile dance, as I skipped from left to right to avoid collision. A trip home from the supermarket was double-jeopardy: now I had myself and a bag of vulnerable veggies to protect. And if there’s a group coming at you? Well, forget it: far better to take your chances against the cars and walk in the road!

Okay, I realise Bristol isn’t alone in this…it’s actually not ‘peculiar behaviour’ at all, but a universal epidemic that is quickly, and worryingly, becoming the established norm. But having moved here from suburban Hampshire – where the age demographic is somewhat higher, and getting anywhere requires wheels rather than feet – it was almost entirely new to me.

I’d come across it in only one other context; the university at which I used to work. Dodging downward-staring students was a sport for the rest of us on campus. But I felt sure it was a localised phenomenon; that the university environment had lulled the students into a bubble of security that simply made them forget to pay attention. As if the safety of the surrounding campus was enough to protect them from any outside forces.

One tale in particular is worth telling. The university had a road running through its centre and on this road was a crossing point: it wasn’t an official crossing so there were no traffic lights or white lines, but it was the most direct, and therefore the busiest, route on campus. Thousands of students crossed at this point every day, but barely one ever looked up as they did so. This reliance on the theory of ‘safety in numbers’ is another phenomenon I’ve noticed in Bristol: when I cross a road, the people around me follow. They place their trust in me, no questions asked. Luckily for them I remember my Green Cross Code…! Luckily for me, I don’t trust others to remember theirs…and it’s a good job I don’t – the number of people I’ve witnessed crossing the road without a glance (again, their smartphone evidently far too interesting!) is nothing short of frightening.

This is exactly the scenario I encountered at the university: approaching the ‘crossing’ a student in front of me, engrossed in his phone, started stepping into the road. The problem with roads of course is that they’re often full of vehicles, and at this particular moment a bus was passing. I grabbed the student’s rucksack and yanked him back on to the pavement. Only at that point did he look up…at the bus that would have squished him. I’ve since decided that shock must be the reason he didn’t turn around and thank me for saving him from being squished…and that his confusion at the whole situation must be why, as he crossed the road (minus bus) moments later, he was once again staring at this phone screen!

Of course, advances in technology will soon put an end to stories like that. Before long, integrated tech will remove the need for a physical phone, so we’ll have nothing to look down at. Instead, I imagine we’ll simply switch on our ‘entertainment eye’ and while our left eyeball enjoys videos of startled cats (because there are some things that will never grow old…) our right eye will be in charge of looking where we’re going. What happens when we need a third eye to read a text, I’m not too sure – perhaps the very notion of ‘reading’ a text will also be entirely antiquated. Automation, too, will undoubtedly be part of the solution. We’re already building cars that think for themselves, so why not bicycles or skateboards or even shoes?

But let’s imagine for a moment that further advancement of technology isn’t inevitable. Let’s say the tech we have now is the best we’re going to get. What then? My writer’s imagination runs wild with images of human evolution kicking in…our necks slowly becoming naturally bent, our eyes gradually parting ways, until eventually we have one on top of our heads for guiding us so the other one can focus on those all-important cat videos. Or, perhaps, we’ll all just develop sonar…I feel the premise for a new sci-fi novel…

For now, we’re in a bit of a conundrum. And I for one am not sure how much longer my patience will hold out. Each time I have to dodge someone on a pavement I get a little angrier. A little more tempted to stick my elbows out as they pass or, alternatively, just walk into them. Because as it turns out, it’s a little boring always being the one who changes course…!

So if you’re reading this, and you live in Bristol, and you want to avoid my elbows – try looking up once in a while. Not just for my sake, but for your own: this is a beautiful place, and you’re missing it. After all, would it really kill us to put our phones away until we get home?

It’s been a year since I said a fond farewell to my grandfather. Gramps. Dead at the age of 91, 5 months and sixteen days – a perfectly adequate age to have reached.

He was a great man, my Gramps. Mr Ronald Ernest Drew. Ron to most. Initials R.E.D. There’s a story about those initials, somewhere in the deepest parts of my memory…a car, a registration plate ending RED, bought specifically for those three letters…or was it just a long-harboured hope to one day have that registration plate? I don’t fully recall, but I know somewhere there is a story about a car and the letters R.E.D.

It’s a sad thought, in my mind, that these stories fade. Replaced in our memories by newer things, more urgent thoughts or less important items – my own head is disconcertingly full of song lyrics, lines from plays, and factoids that will only ever be useful at an obscure pub quiz (did you know, for example, that the ploughman’s lunch served in pubs across England has nothing to do with ploughmen, but was invented by the Cheese Bureau in the 1950s as a marketing ploy? Well, now you do…).

I wish I could remember the full tale of the car and the letters R.E.D. Because it’s an important story: not important in the grand scheme of the universe, but for my little part of the world – the little part in which Gramps resides – it’s hugely important.

Because ultimately, and shamefully, we only exist in this world as long as the tales about us are remembered. And I guess we can’t all be a Shakespeare or an Elvis or a Darwin…

Gramps’ physical footprint on Earth is now confined to his name in the book at Salisbury Crematorium, a reasonably thin collection of photographs in my parents’ attic, and the memories of him that reside in the heads of those who knew him. My generation of the family – me, my brother, my two cousins – will be the last generation to carry those memories. And yes, potentially we each have some sixty-odd years left on the planet, but when we’re all gone Gramps will all but disappear.

You, ‘the reader’, won’t have known Gramps (with the exception of those family members and old friends who happen to read this!) so let me tell you a little about him.

He was, in many ways, an ordinary man. He lived an ordinary life, at least he did in the years that I knew him. Before I knew him, he had a more eventful existence – off to the navy aged 19, then after the war a ‘beat cop’ (at which point he met my Nan – a wonderful lady, I’ll write about her someday) then the manager of a tobacconist shop. Quite a varied career. But during the years in which his life and mine coincided, he was very much like any other retiree of his generation. He followed The Archers, liked going on a drive through the countryside, enjoyed a roast dinner on a Sunday, did a spot of gardening, always had a pack of choc ices in the freezer, listened to the Queen’s speech every Christmas and (in his older years) grumbled at the state of the youth that traipsed through his neighbourhood. The very picture of an ‘old man’.

Of course, to me, he was so much more. And while all the things listed above are true, they are by no means the first things that spring to mind when I think of Gramps. Instead I remember a day at the beach as a child, paddling at the edge of the water as he ran past and dove headfirst into the sea, popping up some 20 seconds later beyond the waves and grinning like a schoolboy. I remember an imaginary dog called Fido that sat by Gramps’ chair and barked for our entertainment in a ventriloquist dummy’s ‘woof’. Gramps liked to paint (even taking up an art course in his eighties to renew his skills) and would coach me in my own attempts, telling me I must develop a ‘signature’ in my pictures, his own signature being three silhouetted birds in flight that appeared without fail in every painting he ever did. He loved gadgets: he had an iPad and a smartphone before I did and, incredibly, signed up for WhatsApp aged 90! He was a wildlife nut with a special fondness for birds, his garden filled with bird feeders and baths and scatterings of nuts and seeds. And I will never forget the day – horrifying at the time, and hilarious in hindsight – that I queued, aged eighteen, in my local chemist clutching a pack of XL Tena Man pants, having politely asked my grandparents if they needed anything from the shops.

These are the kinds of things that make up a person, these little moments, and they are the memories of Gramps that I carry; they keep him ‘alive’, and they are stories that I cherish.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you. You’ve allowed me to share a few brief memories of a man I loved. Real memories, not stories made up for your enjoyment, but genuine pieces of a human existence.

I believe we are very good, these days, at forgetting to remember. We absorb so many things: from the news, from our phones, from magazines, from television. We have instant and somewhat unfettered access to what’s going on in the world, what the ‘celebrities’ are up to, and the never-ending content of Netflix and YouTube. Sometimes I think we are so drowned in content from outside that we run out of time to focus on the content we store inside. Before the era of television and smartphones and Playstations, people would talk to each other and tell stories and pass on wisdom. It’s something I am determined to do more of: the modern world is fantastic, but I plan to strike a balance between ‘new world’ content and ‘old world’ content. I’m setting myself a challenge: for each new piece of knowledge I gain – from the news, or from social media, or a book or a conference or the big wide world of Google…I’m going to write down a memory, or a piece of knowledge from the past – passed down by a grandparent, or learned at school, or remembered from my childhood.

Hopefully, that way, the ‘old world’ in me won’t be nudged out by the ‘new world’ I live in. And, perhaps, people like Gramps may stay alive a little longer in the stories I tell.

I met my man up a mountain. Well…not entirely true. Technically we met at the bottom of a mountain, then trekked to the top. But that doesn’t sound half as romantic. So we tend to stick with meeting ‘up’ the mountain.

It was on an organised group trek to the top of Mount Toubkal in Morocco, and it was the first (and to date, the only) mountain I’ve ever climbed. I’d gone on my own, an impulse decision brought about by a turbulent year in my personal life that led to me ‘rediscovering’ myself and deciding…heck, let’s climb a mountain.

I’d always liked the idea of climbing a mountain. The fact that I had little-to-no experience of climbing didn’t occur to me as an issue, I did lots of hiking and surely that counted for something, right?! Fortunately I’d made a lucky assumption: hiking experience coupled with a decent level of overall fitness meant I was able to climb my first mountain with a look of relative ease and indifference…although, admittedly, that look was ever so slightly forced on one or two occasions!

Maintaining a cool composure all the way to the top of a 4,167m peak in the 30° June heat of the Atlas Mountains isn’t easy for someone more accustomed to British climes…and throwing in the added pressure of wanting to look attractive to a potential suitor didn’t exactly help.

I feel I should clarify at this point that, when I booked my trip, the thought of finding a date hadn’t even entered my head. I was thoroughly happy as a single female; in fact I was thriving as a single female! I loved doing my own thing, at my own time, with only myself to please. I had reached a point of complete contentedness in my own company and had brazenly declared to friends that I had zero intention of dating until my body clock ordered me to settle down and pro-create.

I was not ‘on my game’ in the dating department and was entirely unprepared for meeting someone. And in an effort to keep my kit as lightweight as possible I had left behind anything that I could have used to boost my appearance: no mascara, no jewellery, no pretty clothing…all I had at my disposal was my hiking ability and my charm!

The little stomach flutters that accompany a realisation that you fancy another human being appeared about thirty minutes after I arrived at the hotel. Pretty darn quickly, especially by my standards. I wasn’t prepared for the flutters, and to be honest I didn’t fully understand why I had them…this man wasn’t my usual ‘type’ (I’m fairly certain I’ve told him this, so hopefully it doesn’t come as a shock when he reads it here!). Nonetheless, the flutters were unquestionably there and the more time we spent together the worse they got.

The trip lasted eight days. It was the world’s longest first date.

If I had to describe either of us during that time the words ‘sweaty’ and ‘smelly’ would both feature prominently, as would – thanks to the glorious but somewhat spicy Moroccan food cooked daily by our nomadic cook – ‘farty’. I would also probably include a description of our unflattering hiking clothes, worn multiple days in succession due to luggage restrictions, and mention the fact that the chest straps on my backpack squished my boobs into a weird shape for eight hours a day.

All in all, it doesn’t create the picture of a romantic first encounter. But perhaps that’s what made it so perfect. We met each other in a raw, basic and, to a certain degree, vulnerable state. Most people would probably admit that they don’t put their whole selves out there on a first date; you hold a little bit of you back because you’re trying to portray the best version of yourself. There aren’t many people that can keep that mask in place for eight days straight and after a long day of hiking I categorically didn’t have the energy to fake it! It was very much ‘what you see is what you get’.

And hey, it worked. Nothing ‘happened’ in Morocco, but we had established a connection. We had spent evenings staring up at the stars together, had quizzed each other on our life back home, had shared jokes and observations and a few moments of flirtation away from the watchful eyes of our walking companions. We’d become completely comfortable in each other’s company.

When we arrived back in the UK we said our goodbyes at the airport and went our separate ways home – me to Southampton, him to Bristol. We said we’d see each other again, and it wasn’t an empty statement…we knew we meant it.

Two days later he ‘popped down’ to visit. The next weekend he came to stay. And the weekend after that. I visited him too, even if it was just for one evening between working days, because it felt like a completely normal thing to do. Gradually he started staying longer, working from my place on weekdays, and before I knew it my spare room had become his office and I was washing his underwear. He’d moved in. He even relinquished his own tenancy; Southampton had become his official home.

That was after just three months. But our life in Southampton wasn’t set to last: he saw his future in Bristol, but he saw his future with me as well. So, after a surprisingly brief discussion, we decided Bristol would be ‘our’ home, and I started job-hunting. It took a little while but eventually I landed myself a great job and – almost exactly one year after we’d first met up that mountain – I left my job and my home, bid farewell to my family and friends, and relocated. And the weird thing is…it didn’t feel weird. It felt completely natural and obvious.

We’ve been in Bristol for seven months now. I have a great job, in a great city, and we’re building a life. I still pop down to Southampton regularly, which is hugely important to me. But my outlook for the future is a world away from where it was before I moved. Thanks to my career move I’ve found a sector I’m passionate about, and thanks to the creative and lively influence of Bristol I’ve started doing more of the things I love – including starting this blog to share the stuff that’s important to me. I’ve become a more confident, more worldly, more ambitious and more adventurous person. I have more focus, more drive. I understand myself better and recognise my strengths with more clarity, I’ve found my feet in the world and feel like I can take on anything it throws at me.

And ultimately, I have the man who followed me up a mountain to thank for all of that.

Twas the night of the New Year, and all through the streets

Drunken revellers teetered on unsteady feet.

Having filled up on gin at the nearest cheap pub,

My friends and I stumbled our way to a club.

 

Mascara and lip gloss, applied with great care,

A mountain of product upholding our hair,

Stilettos too high, and dresses too tight,

We had romance in mind on this magical night.

 

The queue for a drink was as long as a mile

So I bought two at once, just to make it worthwhile.

And with one glass of fizz clutched in each of my hands

I strode into the crowd and I started to dance.

 

I twerked and I twirled and I shimmied and shook,

And kept scanning the room for an amorous look.

One by one my companions found dates for the night

Until just I was left, seeking my Mr Right.

 

When the countdown commenced with “Ten, nine, eight, seven”

I took a deep breath and looked up to the heavens,

And prayed to a being I’m not sure exists

That this New Year’s Eve I’d find someone to kiss.

 

I was sure as I whispered that desperate request

That I felt something flicker inside of my chest.

Then the party in unison screamed “four, three, two, one…

Happy New Year!”. And finally, midnight had come.

 

Around me, the couples in passionate embrace,

Clashing lips, and teeth, and tongues, and face.

The groping of buttocks, the clutching of hair,

Pressing crotch against crotch as if no one were there…

 

At a tap on my shoulder, I span round so fast

That Prosecco splashed over the rim of my glass.

As it trickled its way down the side of my arm

I stood stunned, face to face with my cause of alarm.

 

I’d spotted him eyeing me throughout the night

But had failed to evade him, try as I might…

And I wondered, should I have been slightly more clear

When I’d prayed for a partner to kiss at New Year?

 

His eyes, which were glazed from a whole night of drinking

Were brazenly aimed at my chest, unblinking.

His forehead, so sweaty! His cheeks, blotched with red.

A whole tub of hair gel slicked over his head.

 

His choice of attire made me turn up my nose

(He was dressed all in denim, from his head to his toes)

And the cut of his shirt couldn’t hide his round belly,

That shook when he danced like a bowlful of jelly

 

A wink of his eye and a sly little grin,

Then he tilted his head and began to move in…

On any other night I’d have given it a miss,

But I thought “heck, it’s News Years, what’s one little kiss?”

 

He tasted like vodka and stale cigarettes,

And his tongue flailed around like a fish in a net.

But just when I thought I could take it no more,

He stopped with a jolt and looked down at the floor.

 

On his face a peculiar look had appeared,

And he swayed where he stood and he slurred “I feel weird.”

Then his skin went quite pale and before I could move

He bent over and threw up all over my shoes.

 

In an instant, the people around us dispersed

And looked in on our horror as if we were cursed.

He clutched at his stomach and let out a moan,

Backed into the crowd…and I stood there alone.

 

But I heard him declare as he ran out of sight,

“I’ll be back in a minute”. That gave me a fright.

So I raced to the exit and into the street,

Threw my shoes in a bin and walked home with bare feet.

 

As I hobbled my way through the bustling town,

I thought over the evening’s events with a frown.

My New Year’s Eve snog really hadn’t worked out,

And I think maybe next year I’ll just go without…

Today, people across the globe are joining forces in an appreciation of soil. For three decades the fact that World Soil Day even exists has slipped under my radar, but this year I’m following it with interest. Why? Because this year I’ve come to realise; conversations about soil are some of the most vital conversations we need to have.

Most of us probably don’t talk about – or, for that matter, think about – soil on a regular basis. But, when you do think about it, you start to appreciate the influence it has for every one of us every day. That influence was set out perfectly for me by environmental activist Satish Kumar, who I had to pleasure of hearing speak some months ago. His message was this: ‘we are all soil transformed’. That might sound like a slightly eccentric statement but, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. As humans we rely on food to give us the energy and nutrition to survive, and food comes from the soil: the vegetables and fruits we eat grow from it; the meat we consume comes from animals that graze on grass or feed on grain that grows from it. So, by default, we rely on the soil for our very survival.

Given recent evaluations, that leaves us in a bit of a quandary…because, in their current condition, our soils will only last another seventy harvests. Industrial pollution and intensive agriculture are killing our soils: they are compacted, lacking in organic matter, and eroding. It takes a thousand years for one centimetre of fertile topsoil to form but we’re losing multiple thousands of square metres of it by the minute. Climate change will make that worse; extreme weather conditions will mean more erosion in hotter and drier seasons and more soils being washed away in heavy rainfall. Given that soils act as a carbon store, they should be helping us in the fight against climate change, but we need to start looking after them if we want them to look after us.

Soil is a complex thing, full of life, from bacteria to bugs, all working together to break down and revitalise the earth and maintain nutrient levels. When soil is healthy this ecosystem works in harmony and has the ability to do what it needs to, but when we introduce an imbalance we can throw the whole system out of line: whether that’s the addition of chemicals, the compaction of the earth through heavy machinery, or the removal of nutrients at too high a rate through monocropping, not looking after the soil can significantly reduce its performance. And that has a knock-on effect on the whole food and farming system.

I speak with plenty of farmers in my day-job, and soil health is a popular topic of conversation. Soil is a farmer’s most precious asset: their livelihood depends on their ability to grow crops, and the healthier the soil the healthier the harvest. I’ve come across lots of farmers, both organic and non-organic, who are exploring new methods for building resilient healthy soils and seeking ways to reduce activity that has a negative influence. Their reasons for doing so are varied: some have been proactively tending to their soil health for years; some have seen a reduction in productivity and are looking for a fix; and some are facing the uncertain future of agrichemicals and recognising soil health as critical to a good yield. Their levels of commitment differ too, with some looking for a quick fix or temporary measure while others have built their entire growing system around their soil. While it’s encouraging to see this activity taking place, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s enough…or whether something more strategic needs to happen in order for us to make a real difference.

Encouragingly, it seems that Government are upping their game too. George Eustice recently stated that soil will sit at the heart of post-Brexit agricultural policy, indicating a wholesale review of our existing soil management techniques and a renewed focus on environmental improvement. Just days later it was announced that mandatory soil testing will come into force next year as part of new rules to protect the water environment from chemical run-off. And, of course, we have heard several times from Michael Gove that revamped payment schemes will reward farmers who demonstrate environmentally-friendly practices – of which protecting, and improving, soil health is one example. It’s a clear directive that a discernible commitment to soil health will soon be an imperative, rather than an autonomous, action.

It will be interesting to see just what the new agricultural policy looks like, and how far it goes in outlining and incentivising healthy soil. But considering the influence of soil on food security, climate change, and the future of agriculture, it seems clear that the emphasis on healthy soils needs to be robust.

By this time next year, I’m hoping that World Soil Day might be more than just a day of appreciation and campaigning….perhaps we’ll also be celebrating turning a corner towards healthier soil, and perhaps we’ll be enjoying a slightly better outlook on the future for one of our planet’s most precious things.