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CLAPHAM CHURCHScanning the news items over this Easter holiday I was interested to note the Media headlining the PM’s assertion that the United Kingdom is a “Christian country”, and they’ve contrasted this with a cautionary letter, signed by an impressive cast-list of writers, broadcasters and intellectuals who say it’s not. The letter suggests that the repeated assertion by politicians that the UK is a “Christian country” is merely pandering to right-wing conservatism, that it is divisive and a retrograde step for any progressive, multicultural society. But rather than running for cover, the government came out fighting this morning, the PM’s comments being backed up by a couple of party big-guns, reminding us that the foundations of British social and constitutional history are indeed quite demonstrably “Christian”.

I feel the waters have been rather muddied with all this stamping about, but I agree that, since the narrative of my own past is at least nominally Christian, this is likely also to be true for many British people, and certainly those who are of middle age today. It is also more likely to be true the further one goes back through the generations. But regardless of whether we call ourselves Christians, surveys do indicate the majority of us now actually practice no faith at all. So, while the political view is that the UK is, or should be, morally and constitutionally “Christian”, intellectually, culturally and socially, it isn’t – at least it isn’t any more. Only when extrapolating the data backwards do we see a more religious, Christian, faith-based society; extrapolating the trend forwards, we see it declining still further.

The narrative of the UK, like much of the western world, is secular. Its public face is business-like and pragmatic. Only in private do its citizens express their religious views, if they have any. That a politician, a business leader, or indeed anyone else, attends church every Sunday and holds fast to traditional Christian beliefs is a matter for them, part of their private, rather than their public life, in the same way as their sexuality and their ethnicity should not be seen as having any bearing on their ability to do the day-job.

I recall it’s not the first time the PM has spoken out on religious matters. Recently, he was urging Christians to be more confident in expressing their faith. I think we need to return here to the distinction between those who actually practice Christianity, and those who merely accept the label for want of any other. Those practising Christians of my acquaintance certainly lack no confidence in matters of faith, so it’s unclear to whom the PM is addressing these remarks. Meanwhile, of the overwhelming majority of “nominal” Christians among my friends and family, I’m sure none could care less about religious matters, so long as the vicar can still be persuaded to marry them in church.

A decent country needs decent, energetic, intelligent and competent people in charge, but such qualities do not come with a religious, sexual or ethnic label. I have known practising religious “Christian” people who, outside of the church, were very cruel and stupid, and it makes me pause when I contemplate what possible political motive there might be in trying to render the “C” word once more synonymous with positions of power and influence. Whilst as a spiritual philosophy Christianity, or indeed any other faith, holds a profound spiritual wisdom for those in search of it, as a social authority, or an instrument for control or influence of large populations, “Religion” in general is very much a tainted brand, and politicians should be careful how they handle it.

When I filled out my census forms in 2001, I probably entered Christian in the “faith” box, as I had always done previously, but this was purely out of convention rather than conviction. As a child, I went regularly to the Anglican church because my nearest school was faith based, and it was therefore “expected”. This has coloured my view of religion somewhat, and rendered me sensitive to carrying out any action merely for the appearance of things. Throughout those attendances as a child I was not really a Christian, because it takes much more to be a proper Christian than an hour a week. But in the mill-villages of the North of England, certainly in the sixties and early seventies, there was still a stigma attached to unfastening that label. When a people are defined by the badges they wear, there is something rather daunting about openly admitting one has no badge, no belonging. It’s like saying you are nothing, that to be faithless is also to be tribe-less; it is to risk being cast out into the wilderness, without protection.

I have not attended church services regularly since 1971, when I left the faith based education system to enter the bosom of a shaggy haired secular comprehensive. There, God was irrelevant in the day to day, and was presented to us in religious education classes more as a private matter, than with any evangelical zeal. There I found myself with half remembered bible stories and a wad of certificates for Sunday school attendance, while seriously lacking proficiency in basic mathematics – a handicap that took me many years to catch up. Still, it was not until the 2011 census and, in the absence of anything more descriptive, I finally entered “none” in the faith box.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to leave the bosom of the communion by so simple an act as ticking a box, but then my parents were fond of telling the story of my christening being bundled through by a vicar who, in a hurry to go picking blackberries, got my name the wrong way round, so the State has me down as one thing and God quite another. Thus it was with casual indifference on the part of God’s representative, and helplessness on my own, I was accepted into the faith in the first place, so perhaps I should have fewer qualms about the reciprocal casualness with which I have subsequently cancelled my membership, some fifty years later.

Such at least is the experience of one middle aged UK citizen in his nominally Christian country.

This is not to say I have abandoned the spiritual quest, nor do I suggest that it is in any way unimportant. Indeed, paradoxically, spiritual thinking is now more than ever central to my approach to life, though hardly in a way that anyone could describe as religious – it’s just that there’s no box that will define it on the census forms. The secular world is remarkably dynamic and productive, but without a moral compass it can easily founder. Religion alone can do nothing to address such shortcomings, and when it does get involved it usually ends up making things worse. It is the human spirit in its most sincere manifestation, and in whatever language it is expressed, that will move the mountains and clear the path to a better world, and it is from the human spirit, unfettered by dogma and ritual, we derive the moral compass that is universal to all cultures.

Regrettably, in all this Media fascination with religion and politics, in the sound bites, the muckraking, mudslinging, feather-preening and tub-thumping, I note that matters of the spirit are entirely absent. Whether the UK is a Christian country or not is, I believe, entirely irrelevant in addressing the challenges we face as we go forward into the twenty first century. For myself, the thought of a half-century time-slip back to the Christian conservatism, and the back-stabbing religious hypocrisy of a sixties mill-village, is not one that I particularly relish.

Dunlin

dunlinThey were dunlins I think,
A great cloud,
Like a ponderous comet,
Come to graze the marsh,
Far beyond the reach of men.

There seemed a million birds at once,
All wheeling in the pale blue
Of a spring morning.
Slow, sinuous waves,
Curling.
Waves within waves,
Black as smoke,
Then peeling to silver,
As they traced the contours,
Of the hidden world.

Each was the pixel part,
Of a greater being.
Each pair of eyes,
Shared host to a second sight.
And as I watched I felt a yearning,
Haunting and formless,
As if for a lost love,
Whose name I could not recall.

Meanwhile, behind me roared the road,
As the day warmed,
And the shops opened,
And the empty fast food cartons,
Scraped their drunken paths,
Along the promenade.

I bought new jeans and a hat,
And entering my code into the machine,
Became one pixel part,
Of another kind of being,
Also greater than myself,
But void of insight,
And a mere shadow,
Of the dunlins’ finer dance.

Seeking bridges

slater bridgeA traveller in a strange land sits down to rest by the bank of a river. He’s unsure of the geography and has no map to guide his way. All he knows is he wants to cross the river to find out what’s on the other side, preferably before nightfall. He’s heard lots of stories about the land across the river, most of which he suspects are probably made up because they’re so contradictory, and everyone he speaks to on the subject has a different opinion, to say nothing of a variety of dogmatic beliefs, so he’d like to go there for himself and see what’s what. Strangely the far bank is shrouded in mist, so he can only make out the vague forms of rocks and trees. Listening carefully over the sound of the river, he can hear the calls of unknown creatures and, at times, more softly, something that sounds like voices and the laughter of a people at ease with themselves.

He’s anxious to make way, to cross over, but the traveller is a cautious man; for navigation, experience has taught him to trust only the evidence of his own eyes, that the natives hereabouts, although they speak his language, are notoriously unreliable when giving directions – sometimes helpful, sometimes deliberately misleading, and sometimes so self-deluded they might think they’re being helpful, when in fact they’re not.

All the traveller want to know is if there’s a bridge by which he can cross the river, if he can reach it before nightfall, and if he should go upstream or downstream to get there? What could be simpler?

A native comes along and the traveller asks him the question, to which the native confidently replies: go upstream, there’s a bridge just five minutes away and you can safely cross long before nightfall. But the native might be lying and the traveller is very tired – he doesn’t want to waste his energy with a wild goose chase, so he waits until another native comes along, then asks the same question. Go downstream, says the native; there’s a good bridge not five minutes away and you can easily cross, long before nightfall.

The traveller is confused. It would be more reliable to toss a coin or consult an oracle, than ask the natives. It’s not that the natives have ever been hostile to him, indeed they generally appear warm and friendly, but he suspects this is because travellers such as he always carry gold coins, and with a bit of guile, the more naïve travellers can easily be parted from them.

The third native who comes along says the same thing as the first, and the traveller wonders if he should go with the majority view and head upstream, until the fourth native agrees with the second. Then another native comes along and laughs, says there is no bridge in either direction, that all talk of bridges is the result of delusional thinking, and that anyway there can be nothing interesting worth visiting on the other side of the river, and why would the traveller want to bother himself with all that nonsense anyway? Instead he gives directions to a nearby village where he says a beautiful young woman, who he describes as his sister, will be very glad to entertain the traveller for a small fee. The traveller politely declines this offer and continues to wait on the riverbank for a solution to his dilemma.

But nightfall is approaching and, without shelter, the traveller is afraid of wolves, robbers and vampires, all of which the natives have assured him come out and prey upon the benighted. He knows the natives are not to be trusted in anything, but his own imagination will not allow him to ignore the possibility of something unpleasant befalling him after dark. Perhaps it would be wiser then to seek out that village after all and avail himself of its comforts, at least until morning.

But if he can find a bridge and cross over the river, he reasons, he might find a more comfortable resting place and a traveller’s inn that would have the good taste not to tempt him with dubious comforts, but instead offer a more honourable fayre. And from the contented murmur he can still hear coming from the other side, he suspects there are no wolves there, nor robbers, nor vampires, and that a man may sleep out in the open, under the stars without fear of being molested.

Another native happens along and the traveller wonders if this man can be persuaded to tell the truth in exchange for a gold coin. But there is nothing to stop the man from taking the traveller’s coin and still point him in the wrong direction (it wouldn’t be the first time). Similarly the natives are totally unreliable as hired guides, insisting on payment in advance, then like as not leading travellers into a trackless wilderness before spiriting themselves away just as night falls. Wisely, he lets the native go on his way.

Instead, the traveller cuts a branch from a tree, sharpens one end of it and drives it into the earth, to form a stout marker. Then, in bold letters, he carves into it the message:

Here I was, before I went wrong.

He tosses a coin for direction, and heads upstream.

southport pierIt was a beautiful hot day, early in the season, and I’d been tempted out to the coast, to Southport, for a walk along the promenade, then to the end of the pier, for coffee and doughnuts. Being rather challenged in the follicle department these days, I’d not wanted to catch the sun too much on the top of my head, so I’d called in to the Matalan store, just off the promenade, for a hat, choosing for myself an inexpensive, one-size-fits-all thing, made of straw.

Thus, protected from the sun, I re-joined the crowds making their way along the pier. It was a wonderful afternoon and my spirits soared. After feeling like I’d been cooped up in the house all winter, the sea air was incredibly invigorating. About half way along the pier we picked up a teasing breeze, and one of the mischievous little sprites of air lifted my new hat from head and snatched it out of reach of my startled grasp. Well, that’s that, I thought – I’d had the hat all of ten minutes, and there is was: gone! I turned then, just in time to see a quick witted lady, whom I took to be of Malaysian descent, catching hold of it with a dainty little hop and a laugh. Her companions, an English couple in their seventies, found the incident amusing and for a moment we all shared in the silliness of it. She had the most wonderful smile, this woman, and such playful eyes, and a charming demeanour. Graciously, she returned my hat and, a little embarrassed, I thanked her, then went on my way.

It was that same evening, at home, I got an email from a friend. I replied with some news about my day. I don’t know why I brought up the subject of nearly losing my hat – perhaps I was stuck for something to say – but anyway I described the incident to him pretty much as I’ve described it to you. Then, the very next day, he came back to me with another email. He said his sister, who lives in Southport, has a neighbour, a lady originally from the far east. She’d had some elderly English friends visiting recently, possibly the companions I’d described, and wouldn’t it be amazing if it was the same woman who’d caught my hat? Enthused by the possibility, he resolved to ask his sister to enquire at the next opportunity. And I, equally enthused, eagerly awaited news. The odds were pretty much against it, but stranger things have happened, plus I had this funny feeling,…

And you know what?

My friend’s sister’s neighbour said it definitely wasn’t her! But if it had been,… well, that would have been a really good story!

Of course, it would not have taken much for me to end my tale differently for you here, thus transforming rather a pointless, factual, anecdote into a more beguiling lie. Believe me, the temptation was strong, because I had wanted it to be true. I had wanted the neighbour of my friend’s sister to be the one who had caught my hat, because it would have created a highly improbable and possibly meaningful connection between strangers who were mutually, though rather vaguely connected already, yet entirely unknown to one another. That we are all more intimately connected than we suppose is, I believe, the way of the universe, and I’m hungry for stories that support this hypothesis, to the extent that I am often tempted to bend the facts in order to yield a more polished myth. This is, after all, what story-tellers do.

Sure, we’re all fond of amazing coincidences. It would have been like the universe singling me out on that sunny day, amid vast crowds, and raising me to the ranks of existential celebrity. It would have meant I was not just some insignificant twerp in a poorly fitting hat. But alas, in the absence of any miracle, as my good lady was kind enough to point out at the time, that’s exactly what I had been. That I’d been unable to hold onto my hat, and a stranger had caught it, was really neither here nor there, and barely worth the mention.

Except,…

This fragment of an opening has the feel of a romance about it, and I’m fond of writing those, so I shall step aside from myself for a moment and put a fictional protagonist in my shoes. He’s single, perhaps divorced, or maybe he just never got around to it in the first place. He’s thinking life’s passed him by, that the time for love has gone.

Then the wind snatches off his hat, just like that!

And the rest, as they say,…

Well, you couldn’t make it up, could you?

The Ebb Tide

southport beachThe tide ebbs,
And leaves nothing.
I scan the beach
For bits of interesting flotsam;
Things that might sparkle in the sun,
And which, from a distance
Look promising.

I imagine rare jewels,
Or a twist of something golden in the sand,
And scamper after each,
To discover amid the tangle
Of fly swarmed detritus,
Only junk;
Uninspiring;
Worthless as the world.

It goes out a long way here;
Miles and miles of slime-mud,
A disturbing plane of nothingness.
How naked and alone,
At ebb tide,
I am revealled,
Void even of the illusion
Of my robes of idle fancy.

Is it true then?
That beneath the jolly roll
Of light-danced waves,
There is hidden nothing but the sly clams sucked deep,
And the rotting carcases of those
Who swam too near
A barren shore?

ouspenski

P D Ouspenski – 1878-1947

Ivan Osokin is a man in his middle twenties; he is feckless, undisciplined and broke. He’s had many chances to make good in life, but has squandered them all; he’s even let the love of his life ride off into the sunset without him and now receives news of her engagement to some boring old stiff-ass who’s plainly not worthy of her. No surprises there – he’s been on a course of disappointment and self inflicted disaster his whole life, and he just can’t help it.

He tells a magician of his woes, longs to begin his life over again, then he can change things for the better. The magician assures him things will be no different, but grants him his wish anyway and sends him back twelve years. Thus, Osokin arrives once more in the latter part of his childhood, just before the time he was expelled from school for being a prankster and a sluggard. And, just as the magician predicted, even though, second time around, Osokin knows he’s been this way before and he’d better pull his socks up, he’s unable to do so. Life presents him with the same choices, and the choices he makes are more like instinctive reactions than considered decisions. Once again he just can’t help himself; the groove of his life is simply too deep to escape.

Written around 1905, when Ouspenski was in his middle twenties (a bit like Osokin!) the “strange life” uses the idea of eternal recurrence, that we possess a kind of immortality, one in which no sooner are our lives over than we begin again, exactly as before. The more optimistic supporters of this system tell us that with skill and awareness we can feel when a choice we’re about to make is wrong, because last time it ended badly for us, so we make another choice, fine tuning our lives through successive incarnations, until we finally make the best of the circumstances into which we are born. The more pessimistic however, tell us that we are unable to change our ways, that, like poor Osokin, man is sleepwalking, an automaton, that eternal recurrence is actually a prison from which few escape, because they simply don’t know how. And that’s why the world is incurably mad.

Until 1915 Ouspenski was known as a philosopher, journalist and author of several influential works: The Fourth Dimension, Tertium Organum, and a New Model of the Universe. The new science of quantum mechanics had created a buzz, revealing a very strange universe, which cleared the way for a brief renaissance of mystical thinking that electrified the cultured classes. And at their centre were thinkers like Ouspenski.

The strange life of Ivan Osokin is an exploration of the possible reality of a fourth dimension, and the search for a deeper meaning to life. By 1915, when the story was published, the Russian Empire Ouspenski had grown up in was descending into the turmoil of revolution, while the rest of Europe was blasting itself to bits in the trenches of the first world war. All of mankind’s fine ideas seemed to have brought only ruin. Ouspenski was searching for a new way to overcome in man what seemed stupid and mechanical, and the search was urgent because, in the struggle between barbarism and civilisation, barbarism was definitely winning.

So,…

Osokin finally catches up with himself, second time around, and the magician says that he told him so. Osokin is appalled by how helpless he had been in avoiding ruin again, that even knowing his mistakes ahead of time, he was unable to avoid repeating any of them. Then the magician gives him a way out. He says Osokin can change his life next time around, but only by making significant changes within himself. But there’s a catch: Osokin cannot do this alone; he requires the help of an all-wise charismatic guru type – i.e. the magician – to whom he must first sell his soul for a very long apprenticeship.

The story reflects events in Ouspenski’s own life. In 1915, he met a charismatic magician in the mysterious Greek-Armenian, George Gurdjieff, to whom he hitched his brilliance and spent the next 9 years or so immersed in Gurdjieff’s bizarrely eclectic teachings. Of Gurdjieff, opinions vary depending on who you read. Some describe him as a genius, a sage, a magus, others as a madman and an outrageous charlatan who would have remained forever obscure, had it not been for the shield of Ouspenski’s reputation among European intellectuals.

But Gurdjieff is another story.

We leave Osokin contemplating whether or not to hand himself over into the care of his magician – as Ouspenski was perhaps also doing in 1915. For Ouspenski though, things didn’t work out particularly well with the magician. As early as 1918 he was having serious doubts about Gurdjieff’s methods but it wasn’t until until 1924, he finally announced his return to a more independent line of thought. Some would say however, that his best work was over by this time – some would even say it was over the day he met Gurdjieff. He died in England, in 1947, a source of great inspiration to many, both in his own time and in the succeeding generations who have discovered him anew. But he never found what he was looking for. Ouspenski’s story, and his search for meaning through some of the most turbulent events in history is a remarkable one, and his failure is  all the more poignant for its heroism.

I find the idea of an eternal recurrence an interesting one. It makes a kind of intellectual sense out of life, whether you take the optimistic or the pessimistic track. It may be that many of the decisions we make are indeed unconscious – but I also think the biggest mistake we can make is to hand over responsibility for personal change to someone else. The right choice is the one for which we can fully accept responsibility for our actions, while remaining mindful of their consequences, both practically and emotionally, for ourselves and others. Without such a grounding, no magician is ever going to make a ha’porth of difference to our lives. But maybe that’s just my conservative nature, and my own trap.

In the Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, I would not have handed my fate over to that smug and quite possibly insane magician, submitted myself to his teachings – which I admit I’m unable to penetrate at all, and which at times seem quite silly. Better for me to have got on the train and followed the love of my life, begged her not to marry the other guy. We would have married and had kids, and I would have settled down to look for the answer to the meaning of my life elsewhere, between the demands of a banal dayjob, and changing poopy diapers. I would have looked for it in books, and in the ideas of others, looked for connections in the muddle of world thought that others had perhaps missed.

I would not have found the meaning of my life in my choice of life, but Ouspenski didn’t find it either and if he couldn’t, I don’t rate anyone else’s chances very much, at least not on this side of the fourth dimension. Maybe he would have done it, had he not fallen under Gurdjieff’s remarkable spell.

I don’t know; maybe he’ll work it out, next time around, and next time I read The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, I’ll realise where I’ve been going wrong too.

The strange life of Ivan Osokin

dipper

White throated dipper

I drove back in time at least two weeks yesterday. Around my home village, on the sleepy plains of West Lancashire, the harbingers of Spring are maturing nicely – hawthorns greening and the first crop of daffodils already looking spent. But an hour north, in the Yorkshire dales there was a colder, harder feel to the air. Here, the hawthorns were bare and frigid, and the watery sunshine I’d woken to had become more of a watery grey with spitting rain and a sleepy clag hugging the hills.

I was bound for Ingleton, a little dales village which has been drawing tourists since the 18th century. I was en route for the famous waterfall trail. Largely unknown outside of Ingleton until the 1860′s the waterfall trail takes in a series of some of England’s finest falls – a four and a half mile circuit of breathtaking beauty, and an absolute must for anyone visiting the Dales on holiday. There is a catch though – it’s not free. At the time of writing there’s a £6.00 per person charge. I’ve noticed a lot of grumbling about this in various forums, and while I wouldn’t normally condone the private ownership of our natural heritage, and the charging of fees to see it, I think the waterfall trail is special case.

Difficult of access and in places downright dangerous, this trail couldn’t possibly cope with the visitor numbers it sees without special attention to the paths, or they’d be churned to slime in a season, and people would be lost regularly – drowned, swept away or dashed to bits in the rocky ravines that truly are the stuff nightmare. As a walk it might be classed as easy to moderate, meaning anyone who can put one foot in front of the other and climb a flight of stairs is probably up to it. However, without those well maintained walkways, this would be a serious scramble and off limits to all but the hardiest and footsure.

So I paid my £6 with a glad heart and drove onto the carpark. Huge carpark, and I was the first one on it. I therefore had the luxury of choosing my spot and picked out a fairly private bit with a nice view of the river. I was pulling on my boots when the second car arrived. He had almost as much choice as I, but decided to squeeze his car in next to mine with barely a wafer between them, then opened his door clumsily. Bang!

“Oops, sorry mate.” He checks his door. “No damage.” He pulls on his coat and bumbles off to the toilets.

Had it been me I would have preferred to park some distance away; with so much room available it makes no sense to crowd others, or maybe I’m more of a misanthrope than I think, and others more naturally gregarious. People confuse me, and while I think I have made some halting headway over years in analysing myself, a lifetime of observing others has taught me nothing. I moved the car before the clot came back and delivered old grumpy another crack.

money tree

Money tree, Swilla Glen

The walk begins by following the river Twiss upstream through Swilla Glen, a beautifully mossy, wooded ravine. The first feature of note here is not a waterfall, but a fallen tree-stump covered with an armour plating of copper coins that have been knocked into it. It’s a custom you see a lot in Yorkshire. If this were Lancashire there’d be someone with a pair of pliers pulling the coins out. I’m not sure of its origins but suspect something pagan, a distant folk memory perhaps of paying ones respects to the water-faery, for good luck or healing – or so my romantic imagination insists. The real reason is probably far more prosaic.

Apart from the clumsy clot on the carpark, my luck was holding and the heavy rain that had been forecast was so far limiting itself to a light drizzle. There was still a lot of water coming down the glen though and I could hear the Pecca falls thundering long before I saw them. I have stood by the Pecca falls when the air has been shuddering and the ground shaking. The volume of water and the energy behind it is an awesome spectacle – one of the attractions of falls worldwide of course, but none more so than here. The walkways and bridges manage to get you in really close to these falls and you’ve only to imagine tourists scrambling over lichen slick rock to appreciate the sense in paying for a bit of maintenance, some steps and a stout barrier between yourself and certain death.

pecca falls

Pecca Falls

But the most famous and picturesque of the falls lies further on. This is Thornton force. Unlike the Pecca falls, which are squeezed in raging white torrents down a deep rocky ravine, Thornton force spills its thunderous way in the wide open. Take my picture it says, or paint me. But photographs can’t do it justice – they shrink it to a fraction of its true size, and they silence its throaty roar. I have sat and stared at Thornton force on a summer’s day and lost myself in it. A fine, double cascade – no one passes by here without a feeling of wonder – yet all it is water falling.

thornton force

Thornton force

We leave the ravines of the Twiss above Thornton force and climb to the Twistleton scars. This is the exposed bit and if you’re going to catch the weather it’ll be here. And it was. I caught a cold wind and a stiff back hander from the rain which gave me a good soaking, until I was able to dip down into the valley of the Doe and the down-stream leg of the walk. The falls here I think have a more subtle beauty about them. The vale is more densely wooded, more intimate, more sylvan, the rocks more heavily lichened, the water white and more dancing, as it makes its jolly way.

beezley falls

Beezley falls

The upper falls here – the Beezley falls, are a photographer’s delight, with such a fascinating number of twists and turns, every step revealing a new and ever more dramatic picture, but again the camera shrinks them to an atom, robs them of every spark of life. The pictures I’ve included here must be enlarged in the imagination a hundred fold, to the accompaniment of a deep, rumbling roar, and the song of birds.

The last of the falls on this spectacular trail is Snow Falls, another impressive and powerful cataract, though hidden at first by the deep ravine through which it passes, and one views it almost in retrospect. Before this towering curtain of white water, I noticed a bird, perched upon on a low rock, surrounded by leaping torrents. Binoculars showed it to be a dipper, rather a beautiful, playful little thing, mostly black, white throated, with a russet cap and waistcoat. It would occasionally go wading, swimming in the eddies, diving, then bobbing back up to its rocky perch. The dipper is a well named bird.

The gorge which ends with Snow Falls struck me as something akin to the gates of hell, a terrifying place where only madmen would venture voluntarily, but here was this beautiful little bird, unafraid, undaunted by the din. Perfectly adapted to its environment, it did not see the falls as I saw them – magnified and personified through the imaginative apparatus.

after twistleton

It’s significant, I think that people have flocked to Ingleton, and places like it, for centuries. We come and gaze wide eyed at the scenery, blinking as if at some alien world. We are amazed by it because we are not quite one with it. Were we ever to become truly one with it, we would become like the dipper, a thing of innocent beauty in itself, gambolling amid great beauty, but entirely unconscious of it. Like the tree that falls alone in the forest and makes no sound, because there is no one to hear it, it is mankind who lends an eye to show the world how beautiful it is, and a heart to reveal what mysterious joys such beauty can inspire.

So, two significant encounters – the clot on the carpark, and the dipper. I learned much more from the dipper, but then I’ve never been very good with people.

Graeme out.

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