Where next?

I am new to this blogging lark and I am intrigued.

The impetus for starting to write came as I was preparing to leave for a two week walk along the Thames Trail in England on the 5th January this year, a trip which had to be re-directed to Wales and the Offa’s Dyke Trail due to the dramatic flooding which deluged the south of the country, literally on the day of my arrival. I had started posting a few thoughts every day before I left and vowed to keep the daily rhythm up for the duration of the walk, undeterred by the potential lack of internet access that I was anticipating in the more rural areas of the Trail. I was somewhat trepid about publishing a daily diary-type outpouring, unsure as I was (am) about finding a genuine voice and about whether anybody – outside of my family, who are honour-bound to find everything that I do awesome (and by the way, thanks for your comments, Mama) – would be interested in reading what I had (have) to write. Also, I am completely new to the technical side of on-line publication and dreaded wading into a quagmire of menus, options and structural issues that would have me ranting and breathing fire within 20 minutes of opening a WordPress account. I have one or two high-level, black belt Techies amongst my closest friends (don’t I, Janine?) and was sure that I could prevail on them to haul me out of any messes I found myself manoeuvred into, but nonetheless, trepid I was and still am, although it is not half as bad or tortuous as I imagined it might be.

As to the lack of interest in any content I might post, well, that was easily countered by the argument that if nobody was interested, nobody would follow and therefore I would talking to the sparrows and no harm would come of that. I do have a few, very few, blogs that I follow with keen interest and am encouraged and inspired by their authors’ efforts, high-level of personal integrity and communications skills. My favourites examples currently are Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert and Nikolaus Förster, Editor in Chief of Impulse Magazin, the german business monthly. I had a moment of epiphany recently when Verne Harnish, the Gazelles Meister pointed me towards a post of Scott’s that went a long way to explaining the rationale behind blogging and committing to a regular routine of communication: Here is Scott’s excellent summary verbatim:

One of the systems I use but didn’t mention in the book is what I’m doing right now: blogging.

When I first started blogging, my future wife often asked about what my goal was. The blogging seemed to double my workload while promising a 5% higher income that didn’t make any real difference in my life. It seemed a silly use of time. I tried explaining that blogging was a system, not a goal. But I never did a good job of it. I’ll try again here. Writing is a skill that requires practice. So the first part of my system involves practicing on a regular basis. I didn’t know what I was practicing for, exactly, and that’s what makes it a system and not a goal. I was moving from a place with low odds (being an out-of-practice writer) to a place of good odds (a well-practiced writer with higher visibility). The second part of my blogging system is a sort of R&D for writing. I write on a variety of topics and see which ones get the best response. I also write in different “voices”. I have my humorously self-deprecating voice, my angry voice, my thoughtful voice, my analytical voice, my half-crazy voice, my offensive voice, and so on. You readers do a good job of telling me what works and what doesn’t.

When the Wall Street Journal took notice of my blog posts, they asked me to write some guest features. Thanks to all of my writing practice here, and my knowledge of which topics got the best response, the guest articles were highly popular. Those articles weren’t big money-makers either, but it all fit within my system of public practice. My writing for the Wall Street Journal, along with my public practice on this blog, attracted the attention of book publishers, and that attention turned into a book deal. And the book deal generated speaking requests that are embarrassingly lucrative. So the payday for blogging eventually arrived, but I didn’t know in advance what path it would take. My blogging has kicked up dozens of business opportunities over the past years, so it could have taken any direction.

So, whilst I  am not starting out with the goal of snagging obscenely lucrative speaking engagements, I do have high hopes for the rewards which regular posting will bring, both in terms of finding that elusive voice and in respect of the communication that it will allow me to foster with those who I hope will eventually become regular readers and commentators. All of which  brings me to the point of this post.

I have loved writing about my walk along the ODT , but given the fact that I am not going to be walking every week, but do want to post more regularly than that, I need to find a scope that will allow me to explore other avenues and areas worthy of public rumination, that fascinate me equally. Next to covering long distances on foot, ski or bike, my greatest interest is in the business of business, more specifically the investment in and development of small and medium sized enterprises. Investing in privately held companies as opposed to public entities is a fascinating and compelling adventure. Over the last 27 years, since I first cut my teeth as a rooky broker learning the ABC of the business in the basement of Merrill Lynch’s Munich offices, I have been fascinated by the process and discipline of investing in business. It seemed to me at a very early stage that more than almost any discipline that I had encountered,  the discipline of investing was the one – at least in civilian life – which required the combination of the most diverse skills. Some of those skills I found I had, some I definitely didn’t. It has been a lifelong journey, with more ups and downs than the Clywd National Park, honing those skills, working on the deficits and formulating a framework of values  within which I wished to operate, that has fascinated me and continues to fascinate me, perhaps more so now at the age of 50 than anytime previously, when I took time and success for granted.

So my experiment is to try and combine my two aspects of journeying – one physical, one occupational – into a single narrative that will, I hope contain regular elements of both and indeed cross-pollenate each other, as they do in reality. My best thinking is done afoot or a-saddle and the lessons learned from convening with nature and the limitations of my own physical condition shape my thinking as an investor. I regularly come across people who enjoy strange combinations of food (even though the are not pregnant): me, for instance. I love grilled pork sausages with(a smidgeon of) orange marmelade . I know others who eat Nutella with slices of cucumber and my children who put Ketchup on everything. Given the seemingly endless range of combinations that the human palate can deal with, I should think that a blog combining Hiking and SME Investment might find a few specialist connoisseurs, who don’t find the prospect nauseating, whilst at the same time, giving me enough fodder to write on before, during and after my hiking. Whatever the outcome, you can definitely state in yours to come (at one of my revoltingly lucrative speaking engagements), that you read it here first.

Offa’s Oscars – one week later

Gee, I’ve been missing this post and the writing, not to mention the exercise, the fresh air, the views, the movement, the freedom, the rain and yes, even in moments of post-Trail delusion, the mud. What I have really missed most though, was all the great feedback and encouragement and kind words from those of you who logged in every day whilst I was en route and commented or liked my posts. That was one of the best parts of the two week tour and I am very grateful for it. My last dispatch saw me, feet steaming in the freezing North Atlantic looking out eastwards towards the Bay of Liverpool and the hideous off-shore wind farm that now dominates the view from Prestatyn, at the end of a long, inspiring Trail that took me from the Severn Estuary  to the northern coast of Wales along Offa’s Dyke. Instead of spending a blustery cold January afternoon and evening in Prestatyn, daydreaming in the Offa’s Arms pub by the railway station, or enjoying a tea and welsh tea cake at the Offa’s tea room by the beach or even shopping for souvenirs in the Offa’s gift shop, I decided, standing there on the beach, that the best thing I could do was to jump on a train or three and take a ride up to my home town of Poulton-le-Fylde on the west Lancashire coast, pay my parents a surprise visit, have a proper hot bath, an evening of my mother’s cooking and some home comfort for an evening before heading down to London. And what a good idea that turned out to be! The very strange feeling of heading back to civilisation or normalcy was palpable and surprising to me, given that I had not even been away a full tow weeks and that Wales wasn’t exactly the Antarctic, but nevertheless, there it was, a distinct feeling of melancholy and displacement , sitting in a train full of early evening commuters, in my muddy boots, full backpack (remember, “nobody goes walking in January” ) and grizzled beard and feeling as if I had arrived from a different planet. I may have smelled a bit gamey, too, after a week of wearing more or less the same clothes, well-aired and dryed though they may have been each evening,  since my last encounter with a washing machine at the Benchmark B&B.    In that feeling of melancholy I started jotting down all the great things that were hung out in my memory like so many hats on a hat rack  and started wanting to award prizes to them for their special role in making the two week trip along Offa’s Dyke Trail (ODT to insiders) the unforgetable experience it truly was. So here they are, Offa’s Oscars:

Best Sausage: Brynhonddu Country Hose B&B – specially made pork monster with spices and herbs and grilled to perfection

143350699_28ea17fba9_oBest Food: Without doubt at the Black Lion Inn in Hay on Wye. The landlady there came up to me at the end of my dinner asking if I wanted dessert. When I declined citing serious overfeeding, she grinned and said “Well, that’s one nil for me then, isn’t it”. I love competitive publicans and I would return to Hay just for that experience.

Best Bath: Best bath tub was definitely in the Kington Inn cause it was big and had Jacuzzi nozzles installed, but the best bath was, without a shadow of a doubt, the tiny little bucket of a bath which in a grander hotel would probably have passed for a bidet, that I collapsed into after the first day in Monmouth at the Riverside Inn. I have never been so glad of a bath in all my life as that one, so that gets the prize.

Best bit of Kit: Difficult one this and the jury was out for a long time deliberating. After much heart wringing it came down to a close tie between my retractable Leki walking stick, which saved my from injuring myself on many a grassy slope or my beloved Salewa 1,5 litre Thermos flask, which held my daily ration of green tea hot all day and well into the evening. And the winner is…The Salewa Thermos Flask, which is a good thing, because I left my precious stick at Prestatyn station in my rush to make the train. Now there’s gratitude for you.

IMG_0967Best View: A close tie between the magnificent view onto Tintern Abbey from Devils Pulpit just north of Chepstow or the sight of the Clywd Mountains stretching out in front of me in the early part of the walk to Bodfari. Given that it is the big views that have etched themselves indelibly onto my consciousness, the prize goes to the Clywd range.

Best Section of the Walk: No question – the two hour walk from Huntington to Kington over the beautiful Hergest Ridge. I was in a filthy mood that afternoon having lost valuable time earlier in the day and was worried that I would not have enough hours of daylight left to make the trip over Hergest Ridge safely. As it was, I was rewarded with a glorious evening walk over glorious heather moors and a walk that could have gone on for ever as far as I was concerned.

The monkey puzzle spinney at the top of Hergest RidgeMost memorable act of Kindness: Has to go to Gary, manager of the Bodidiris Hotel who not only cleaned my boots and leggings in the evening but also got up very early to make my breakfast and then drove me down the first mile from the hotel to the Trail, knowing that I had a hard and testing day ahead of me.

Best One-liner: Goes to an unnamed farmer, who stopped his Land Rover as he passed me on the last day at 07:30 in the morning, wound down the window and asked “Wet your bed , did you?”

Ghastliest mud: The fields after Cym Maria, south of Prestatyn were more like swamps garnished with sheep excrement and seemed to get progressively worse the closer I got to the coast. There were plenty of candidates of course, but these were the worst of the pack.

That feels like a good place to finish my little awards ceremony. There is still much that I would like to relate, that with the distance of a week is still coming into focus. There are also the first outlines of next walks (two in England one in Italy and one possibly in Greece) to be tackled during the course of the year. My wanderlust has been well and truly ignited and there really will be no stopping me now.

Prestatyn – Of mountains and moel hills

You will remember that at school, there was always one teacher who insisted on working right up to the end of term, even if it was your very last term and you were done. They were the ones who set latin transaltions or maths papers in the last lesson, despite the fact that everybody else in the school was playing general knowledge quizzes or readimg Asterix comics. Well, today, my last day before finishing the Offa’s Dyke Trail, I was in the frame of mind for a gentle stroll off the Clywd Hills gently sauntering through peaceful lanes sloping inexorably, but not strenuously down towards the shore line and the finsihing post by the beach in Prestatyn.  Crossing a few fields, rambling underneath the escarpments of a ruined castle, the screech of seagulls accompanying me to the waves lapping on the sands of Prestatyn beach. You get the picture.

Dawn_South_of_Bodfari.JPGThe final leg is however made in the mould of that odious teacher and come to think of it, that teacher was very probably welsh. Anyway, there was no gentle stroll, no sauntering, no meandering down leafy lanes to the approaching beaches, but instead a little compact overture containing all of the melodies and primary themes from the previous nine days all rolled into the space of 11.5 miles. All my friends from the past 150 miles were there to pay their compliments and to ensure that whatever happened, I would not forget them: there were Moels aplenty, four if I counted correctly, two of them with ascents, if only a few hundred metres of such stupendous steepness that they were almost parodies of Moels. Then there were all the varieties of mud that I have encountered during the Trail: lazy mud, squelchy mud, sticky mud, slippy mud, mud with sheep droppings, mud with horse manure, mud with grass, mud straight, no ice or lemon. Sometimes the mud was so egregiously copious that I had to laugh out loud, exclaiming “Yes, alright, I understand this is a muddy field. No need to lay it on quite this thick.” There was even my friend the “eight inch footpath on cliff edge” on the last and final stretch before the path finally descended down into the town. Of course the cousins of the Moel family were in plentiful supply: Backbreaking vertical ascent and footwrenching slippery descent. I even managed to lose the Trail at one stage – in the middle of a field – an experience, which I was sure I would not have to repeat again.

And some new friends: a whole field of gorse bushes (the welsh equivalent of cactus) through which I had to battle as a result of losing the Trail ( see above), a stile with sheep dung placed (pooed) strategically on the top of the wall, just so that it was invsible until you (I) put my hand on it to heave myself over (don’t even ask how a sheep managed to get up on the wall and why it decided to poo just there). And there were two llamas hissing and spitting like a pair of large sheep crossed with a rattlesnake, guarding the entrance to a farm at a critical junction on the trail – I do not have enough experience in war zone reporting to have the presence of mind to whip my camera out at moments like that, so you will have to take my word for it.

But it was the Moels that did me today. There was no undulation too small or irrelevant between Bodfari and the coast which Offa and his latter days Trail designers deemed unworthy of directing the path over. The Trail led over every hill imaginable and just when I was convinced that this one had to be the very last possibility, wham another Moel was produced out of thin air and up we went again. Even when we had run out of space in front of us, it was not too much trouble to take the next hill adjacent to us and it got to the point where I was so tired and so exasperated and so desparate finally to put the last Moel behind me and get down into town and on to the beach, that I think I would have wept, if there had been just one more hill to clamber up after what proved to be the final one.

It was only 11.5 miles today and therefore one of the shorter days walking and indeed having started at 0700 in the pitch black of the pre-dawn morning, I was in town and on the beach at just before 1400. However the effort of walking those last miles, combined with my rising impatience at wanting to get to the beach, which was always tantalisingly visible behind the next Moel, made for a hard test on the this last leg. However, there were many, many wonderful moments during the day: a glorious dawn over the Clywd Mountains, that first sight of the sea as I came out of a forest and onto a large open field high above the plain below, the round of applause from a large group of elderly walkers, who looked equipped for a professional intenational walking competition, as we crossed on a narrow path and their leader immediately accosted me with “You’ve just walked Offas Dyke, haven’t you? You’ve got that look in your eye!; the walk barefoot over the sand to the waters edge and the delicious sensation of ice cold Atlantic energising my throbbing feet and the cup of tea and deformed ginger fudge, sitting on a bench on the promenade, having just put on my last pair of clean woollen socks, saved especially for the occassion.

It has been a wonderful, wonderful walk: exhilarating, physically testing, enormously varied, with mostly much better weather than I had any right to expect for this time of year, good, honest food, and one or two examples of exceptionally good cooking in two pubs, views that will remain with me until I die and the unconditionally friendliness of the few people I did meet and who looked after me in their homes, inns and hotels on my way. I cannot quite believe that tomorrow I will not be shouldering my pack and spending the day covering 15 miles in the countryside somewhere and I miss it already. But it really was a great start to the new year.