On Whernside

Whernside is something of a paradox. It is the highest of the three peaks of Yorkshire, at 2415 ft, yet also provides the gentlest of ascents, the starting point at Ribblehead being a considerable leg-up at 980 feet. It is not particularly photogenic in itself, yet provides a platform for some of the most stunning views in the dales. The trail is pounded constantly, of course, by three peakers as part of their epic undertaking, but as a day’s objective on its own, it lends itself to an especially fine round of about eight miles. And the climb to the summit is, at this time of year, is almost bettered by the return to Ribblehead, through wildflower meadows. These seem to be a new feature of a rural England, recently awakened to the steep decline in our pollinators – our bees and other bugs. I’m not sure if this is aided by a decline in the numbers of sheep being grazed, for they do seem fewer in recent years – the latter being the tell-tale of an economic, rather than an ecological, collapse. There are certainly pressures on traditional upland farming, post crash, post BREXIT. And it’s plain to all who walk the hills that things are changing.

We came this way in April, last year. There was ice and snow that day, and very few cars at Ribblehead. Today, there are droves, and a chuck wagon selling everything from hot-dogs to 99’s. At the nearby station pub, the jolly jacks are flying, and there is a festival air. It’s a strange place, Ribblehead. Its altitude has it catch some atrocious weather, and there is an air of remoteness about it, yet there is always something of a gathering here: cars, coaches, trains passing, walkers in procession.

It’s still cool as we step out, and the sky is moody, but the forecast is for things to clear around noon. We’ll just about be making the summit by then. For now the tops are lost in a lingering cloud, but the day has the feel of brightness and warmth to come. Sad to say, we’ve left the little blue car at home. She blew a hole in her back box this week and, though the resulting deep, throaty note sounds lovely, like a tuned exhaust, there’s a risk it’ll get very noisy of a sudden, so she’s waiting on repair. Instead, the Astra carried us with a stately kind of grace, this of course being a modern illusion, courtesy of cleverly folded paper-thin steel, mixed plastics, and packing foam.

Blea Moor signal box, Settle Carlisle line

From the iconic viaduct, completed in 1875 we make our way up the rough trail, by the railway line to Blea Moor. There’s a signal box here. Weather blasted and forlorn, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was abandoned, but it’s still manned 24 hours a day. The signalmen work in twelve-hour shifts, and their day starts with a mile long walk, in all weathers. It has the distinction of being the remotest signal box in the UK. First shift starts at six a.m., yet far from being considered a hardship post, it is one of the most coveted, amongst signalmen.

It’s a long walk in, this, and in the process we lose sight of our objective, only gaining it again at the aqueduct which carries the lively Force Gill, and us, over the railway. Here we have a grand view of the line as it emerges from the Bleamoor Tunnel. They run a good deal of freight on this line, gypsum and timber being common sights, but the jackpot is one of the heritage steam excursions. I’m guessing there are none today, or there would be enthusiasts here with cameras on tripods looking to catch these beautifully restored behemoths as they emerge in an explosion of steam

One of the hazards of this tunnel, in winter, is icicles, which can grow as long as fifteen feet. That’s not going to be a problem for Network Rail today, though. The clouds clear on time and, from a moody start, we find ourselves climbing gently over a sunlit Slack Hill, thick with cotton grass, bobbing about in a pleasant breeze.

We have had no rain for many weeks now, and the ways are dusty. I’m not sure if it’s a result of my last struggle up the fells of Patterdale, but the legs have no problem today with the gentle, and mostly paved route to gain the ridge. Like many of our popular upland routes, they were beginning to suffer from erosion. At the same time we were pulling down the mills, and someone had a bright idea of taking up the flagstone floors and laying the pavings end to end across the moorland routes. Not all walkers approve of these paved ways, and they do present their own challenges in winter, when iced, but mostly I think it’s been a success. From a distance, they are also invisible, unlike the ugly scars that were once becoming such a regrettable feature of the national parks.

As we begin our climb in earnest, and gain the ridge at Knoutberry Hill, the path catches a fierce upwards blast of wind, which accompanies us most of the way to the summit. Here we finally attain the lee, and the sun gets to work. The views open up, and the charms of Whernside are revealed as the ringside seat of impressive Dales scenery. Ingleborough dominates to the south, while to the west, suddenly, we see Lancashire’s only remaining mountain, the lonely and little visited Gragareth.

It’s busy here, lots of hikers about. It’s the school’s half-term this week, and many of them are very young, and nice to see them starting out in the right way – either that or being put off the hills for life. The sense of altitude from Whernside is exhilarating, the land falling away steeply to the left and to the right, but it’s the view Ingleborough that most draws the eye. It’s usually the final of the three peaks to be climbed, before the long descent to Horton, and it must have struck fear into the hearts of many a walker over the years, already tired from two stiff climbs, to be suddenly faced with its towering crags and gulleys, and all this after another long slog across the dale to get to it.

I have been digitally detoxing these past few weeks. I have been reading, instead of doomscrolling, drawing pictures and feeling out the direction of the current work in progress. Our access to digital and especially the “social” media is doing something to our brains, I think, sucking something out of them, dulling the imagination. I feel much better for the break, much more creative and in touch with that indefinable inner self. Current affairs can be addictive, and they have a deleterious effect on the psyche, over time, whereas time spent in the high places, like this, are a tonic. And on days like this, the tops can be lingered over, their views truly savoured, erasing all of that which is less wholesome to us.

Wild flower meadows, under Whernside, Late May 2023

We walk on, a little way south, now, before making our descent. It’s a steep one, and used to be tricky, but extensive repairs have provided basically a stairway, which is nevertheless still hard on the knees. The legs are reduced to jelly by the time we come down to the farms at Bruntscar and Broadrake. From here, a delightful series of meadow ways scoots us back to Ribblehead. The last time I was here, that cold April day, I noticed the signs pleading with us to keep to single file across the meadows, and today we reap the rewards of it, a beautiful thread of a path across a golden meadow – mostly buttercup, but also clover and mayflower.


One again though, it is the view of Ingleborough, rising across the dale, that draws the eye. You can never walk any of these hills too often, and I suspect I’ll be up there again before the year is out. Easy going now on smooth, tracks of crushed stone, which paint our boots white with their dust. And then the final bend, around which the viaduct calls us home, back to the car and a well earned brew.


Whernside: a beautiful circuit, not too hard on the legs or the lungs. 8 miles, 1400 ft of ascent.

Simon is a scientific officer, assigned to a field station on a remote Scottish island. He has lost contact with the mainland. Phones, Internet, email, are all down. Local broadcasts on FM and Medium Wave are silent. The ferry that connects him with civilisation can no longer be summoned. By night, the lights from the mainland no longer shine. It is as if the world has disappeared, and he is the last man alive.

The station is self-sufficient, generates its own power, and he has food to last him months. He is in no immediate danger. But how can he find out about what has happened to the world beyond?

A technical guy like Simon would be thinking of the short wave frequencies. He would be thinking of how he could build a receiver, and erect a wire for an antenna. The short waves carry signals over immense distances. If anyone, anywhere, is broadcasting information about the fate of the world, he’ll pick it up there.

I’m describing the genesis of a work of fiction, of course. Imagination has steered me in the direction of the short wave wireless frequencies as a plot device. But from the point of view of the story, at least, I’m no longer sure I need it. There’s more going on that I find equally compelling, like the humanoid robot Simon has rescued from the sea.

That robot takes me into cross-genre territory, which I recall was always a strict taboo in the days when I cared about attracting a publisher. It is a rejection slip, already in the post. Except no publisher will ever see this story, if indeed I ever complete it. I am writing for myself, following where it leads. If you write online, fiction or non-fiction, you should write for yourself too. Forget about the approval or otherwise of everyone else, and just do it.

For now, the robot remains, and I’m having fun with it. But the short wave thing, though possibly redundant as a plot device, has leaped the pages into real life. It inspired me to buy a receiver and to hang a wire antenna from a rickety lash-up of bamboo poles. This basic rig has so far picked up transmissions from Nashville, China, Korea, Romania and Turkey. It has picked up the Morse code exchanges between amateurs bending their meagre wattage across the North Sea – I find the rhythms of Morse to be curiously soothing. There is a phone app that listens to the dots and dashes and translates in real-time. They seek contact, with a distinctive burst of CQ… CQ… CQ… followed by their call-sign. In an age of modern communications this might seem anachronistic, but that anyone should still be interested and capable of doing it, I find inspiring.

I built a basic receiver when I was a boy, encouraged by my father. Instructions came in a Ladybird book. At it most basic, it consisted of a long piece of wire, a ferrite rod, a germanium diode and a crystal earpiece. There was no power needed, since the energy of the radio waves themselves was enough to drive it. It was miraculous to me, as were the far distant stations we picked up with it.

Perhaps inspired by those experiments, my father bought a world band receiver. What he wanted was a Grundig Yacht Boy – the bees knees back then. But what he could afford, on a pit deputy’s wages, was a Russian VEF, which actually served us very well.

And I find the short waves, for all their hiss and crackle, still fascinate. There is no certainty about them. You can pinpoint a faint signal, and note its frequency. But your chances of finding it again depend on atmospheric conditions, as much as broadcast schedules.

When I used to explore the dial on that VEF, a quarter turn, nosing through the mysterious aether was all it took to make a fresh discovery, a foreign voice, a snatch of exotic music, before the static swallowed it again. Sometimes you could keep on station by chasing it with the dial. But mostly it would be gone, a shy ghost briefly met, then departed in the misty swirl of night.

VEF 206 (USSR 1975)

My current rig is more sophisticated. Online resources also enable us to pinpoint and identify transmissions. This demystifies things to a degree, but also adds to the breadth and depth of the experience. There’s still something romantic about it, I find, and anything romantic is, for me, always worth exploring. What do I mean by this?

I can look at my phone any time, and get the news from the BBC. But it’s so much more thrilling to stumble upon it broadcasting from the relay station in Ascension island, and sounding like it’s coming from the far side of the galaxy. And if the short waves are, as some say, a pointless medium now, why does China Radio International broadcast so powerfully, and in so many languages?

All this started with a paragraph that popped out of the imagination, and a story that’s not currently going anywhere. I have left Simon sitting on a rock, on the beach at midnight. He’s staring out at the blackness, where once there shone the comforting lights of a distant harbour. I don’t know what comes next for him, or his robot companion. The story will deliver the answer eventually, if that’s what it intends, and I’m not stressing over it. Me? It had me working out how to raise a wire five meters in the air, then I could listen to the pops and squeals of the universe beyond my own shores. It inflated me with an irrational enthusiasm, and an energy that’s been curiously lacking of late. Then it brought me back to the blog, and to thinking.

We can read a blog, written and posted anywhere in the world. Blogs are a high bandwidth medium, containing all manner of information. There will be plenty of metaphorical static, plenty of meaningless pops and whistles. But there will also be poetry, prose, and stimulating points of view. Meanwhile, my antenna offers only scratchy reception, and sometimes only the dots and dashes of small talk I need a computer to decode. Yet the medium persists, is resilient, difficult to block, and one’s listening leaves no digital trace.

Much of our past, our history, is written in the short-waves. How much of our future lies there is uncertain, but I wouldn’t dismiss it, given that powerful transmitters are still pointing at it, beaming music, chat, culture, current affairs and, yes, propaganda, tens of thousands of kilometres, heedless of borders. It also needs nothing very sophisticated, either to transmit, or to receive.

Western Internet sites are currently blocked in Russia. This is easy to do, easy to control information on modern, digital networks. Less so with the analogue short waves, which is why the BBC have revived their World Service broadcasts into Ukraine and, over the border, into Russia. When all else fails, when the lights go out, when your phone dies, and the Internet goes down, you can still ride the short-waves, join the dots and dashes of a human hand, in the swirl of night, seeking contact,…

CQ,… CQ,… CQ,…

As for Simon, perhaps what he really needs more than a short wave receiver right now, is a boat. How about if one were to simply wash up,…

Brother’s Water

Patterdale, 9:30 am and there is just the one space left at the little car park at Cow Bridge. We drive into it with a feeling of disbelief, having expected it to be full. The gods are clearly smiling on us today, which is more than can be said for others – smiling upon us, I mean. An SUV comes up behind as we step out to take in the glorious air, and the driver has a face like thunder.

“Think yourself lucky there,” he growls, then drives off in a huff.

I suppose he’d had his eye on the spot as well, and we just slipped in ahead of him. But we didn’t do it on purpose, and he knows that, so his pointless remonstrance puzzles me. Anyway, this unexpected sourness is quickly dissolved by the overwhelming beauty of the morning. Brother’s Water is mirror calm, and perfectly reflective of the fells. There are light, fluffy clouds sailing in from the south, and broad patches of light stroking the hillsides. Such days as these among the fells are to be treasured.

It’s incredible to think of it, but it’s four years since I was last here, in the demi-paradise of Patterdale. I promised myself, then, I would do more in the Lakes. But of course Covid hit, and that was it. I’m trying to make up for it now, but finding the fells a challenge. I wonder if I’m just getting too old to handle them, or if it was always this way. Mountain form is a funny business – part acquired fitness, part one’s natural god-given power to weight ratio, and part mental attitude. I’m middling in all three. And these fells are steep.

Anyway, I’m unsure about the route, tackling it with a friend, who’s ticking off the last of his Wainwrights. I’m thinking it might be too much for me, too far, and too exhausting, but worth a go anyway. We’ll be bagging four peaks: Middle Dodd, Red Screes, Little Hart Crag, and High Hartsop Dodd. It’s seven and a half miles round, two and a half thousand feet of ascent.

I have memories of coming down from High Harstop Dodd, with my feet on fire in a pair of cheap boots, their soles worn to a wafer, and using my Alpine poles like a Zimmer frame. I arrived back at the car exhausted, and I’m not sure I’m any fitter now. It’s not an encouraging memory.

I have a soft spot for Patterdale. I used to holiday here a lot in the little hamlet of Hartsop, when my boys were small, and it always feels like coming home when I top the Kirkstone, and cruise down into the dale. My story, “The Lavender and the Rose”, was largely conceived here, and much of the action takes place among its valleys. My imaginary Drummaurdale – the vale of dreams – is here.

We take the path by Brother’s Water. There were Nymphs skinny-dipping last time I passed – though I may have been hallucinating. They’re not here today. The little woodland way is carpeted with ramsons and bluebells. The lake sparkles between the trees, and invites one to linger with the camera.

Middle Dodd and High Hartsop Dodd

Beyond the farm at Hartsop Hall, we cross lush, sheep cropped meadows, by the faint remains of the Iron Age village – just low ramparts in the grass and hut circles, now, dotted with massive boulders. I wonder if the rocks came down from the fell during the period of habitation, and what the inhabitants thought of that. It’s such an idyllic spot, but were they persuaded by this act of their gods to abandon it?

Middle Dodd Summit

We tackle Middle Dodd first, struck at once by the unrelenting steepness. Alpine poles deployed, we haul ourselves up step by step. Or rather, I do. My friend is ten years older than me, does not drink and is mostly vegetarian. He pulls away easily, and I cannot keep pace as the legs drain to jelly. All the beauty is to my back as Patterdale opens out, inviting retrospective photographs. Ahead there is only the rising path, and the occasional passing crag. This ascent to the little cairn on Middle Dodd takes two and half hours. But there is no cause for celebration, only the rising profile of Red Screes beyond it, and another half an hour of uphill.

Towards Red Screes

There is something daunting about Red Screes, which dips now into shade as we approach. I can’t remember the number of stops I’ve made thus far, sometimes leaning over the poles, head down, and deep breathing like it’s the high Himalayas, and I’m sucking on rarefied air. Other times I found a rock and sat down for a bit, let my friend plough on while I fiddled with the camera. I’m carrying the Lumix today – lightweight, and it always seems to do well in these conditions.

It’s not a well trodden route, this, and it’s only when we approach the summit various other paths converge, and the crowds appear, some bare chested and jogging. The fitness of others never ceases to amaze. Nor do they look wobbly legged and breathless, like me.

There is a small, nameless tarn here, a lone eye to the sky. It makes for a suitable lunch stop, while shaky hands fumble with the soup pot, and a welcome shot of sustenance. As we are admiring the view, identifying the summits we knew of old, a pair of young ladies settle across the water, peel off unselfconsciously to bra and underpants, and settle down to sunbathe. We remark that at one time, it would have been a balm for sore eyes. Nowadays, it rather puts us off our lunch, and we move on.

Head of Scandale Pass, looking back at Red Screes

The route descends to Scandale Pass, a loss of height that looked rather less on the map than it does in practice. Indeed, it is a long descent, on legs already tired by that climb up Red Screes. We begin well above the craggy profile of Little Hart Crag, but watch, helpless, as it soars above us. By the time we have descended to the head of the pass, we are faced with a long climb back up, and very little left in the tank. I’m wondering if I am harbouring the dreaded Long Covid and, actually, at this point I couldn’t care less about climbing the crag. There is a by-pass that will take us round it, but my friend is already en-route for the col, and the obvious path to the summit. I spend a while taking more photographs, more leaning over the poles, deep-breathing oxygen back into my bones.

Little Hart Crag

A bite of a juicy Braeburn apple seems to restore some semblance of dignity, and propels me slowly to the col. Once there, the climb to the top seems not so bad after all. But it’s doggie daycare on the summit, more dogs than people, and a tangle of long leads, some dogs loose and muddy. There is noise and fuss. The northern summit beckons, and is quieter. I catch my friend up, and we sit a while, contemplating the route ahead. It’s all downhill from here, and there is a mutual air of relief. We’re both knackered, but my friend is always better at hiding it.

A long stretch of ridge-walking, amid breathtaking scenery, restores the spirits. High Hartsop Dodd beckons, requiring no further climbing. From here the land falls away to the floor of Patterdale, to the ancient village, and a stone barn that never seems to get any nearer as we inch our way down a dusty zig-zag of path, on wobbly legs.

Patterdale from High Hartsop Dodd

You might ask what’s the appeal of inflicting such punishment on oneself. When I was younger, I would have said, it’s worth it to get to the top. But now the tops, although they’re nice to have, don’t burn in my soul the same. There is only that transcendent perspective, walking so high above the valleys that nothing down there matters a fig any more – except, for the pot of tea waiting at the Brother’s Water Inn. The abiding memory, and one that shall linger long, I’m sure, is a retrospective of Middle Dodd, and Red Screes beyond, shot from that lovely, airy ridge to High Hartsop Dodd, and an appreciation of the enormity of the day’s climb.

Middle Dodd and Red Screes

I hope the other fellow found a parking spot, and had as good day of it as we did, though I rather doubt it’s in his nature to be thankful or satisfied with anything, for very long.


My thanks to fellow blogger Bowland Climber, without whose guides I would never have heard of Brock Bottom. Thanks also to the Copilot navigation app, without which I would never have found it. Brock Bottom lies in a wooded valley, and consists of an ancient bridge, a small carpark and picnic site, all tucked away at the bottom of a steep, narrow lane. Riverside trails and romantic ruins provide the main draw for visitors. Around ten miles north of Preston, on the edge of the Forest of Bowland, there is a sense of deepest rural Lancashire here, and a place out of time. We arrive mid-morning, mid-week, meet no other traffic on the lane, and the car park is almost empty. Notices, warning against parking on the lane, however, suggest weekends might not be the best time to visit.

By the River Brock

I’m feeling a bit off-key, today, a bit muddle headed. I don’t know why. The little blue car is also sulking. She says nothing, but I know it. I got her road tax renewal yesterday, and with it the usual shock, also the feeling there must be a mistake. She’s a 1.6 litre 125 horsepower roadster, so hardly a super-car. But she’s old, and primitive, and carbon heavy by modern standards. I’m guessing they want her off the road, stinging us £365, this time. I know she thinks I’m thinking I should be getting rid of her, and that’s why she’s sulking. But I’m not. Days like this wouldn’t be the same in any other car. Little lanes, sunshine, top down, birdsong, scent of meadows, woodland, fresh air. This is what she was made for, and we will continue to live this particular, dream so long as we are both still able.

The plan is to follow the River Brock upstream. Then a zigzag of quiet lanes and meadow paths will bring us round to the north of Beacon Fell. We’ll return by climbing the fell and dropping down the other side, back to Brock Bottom – a walk of around six and a half miles. Ahead of us are ancient woodland, meadows, pine forest, and stunning views of the Bowland hills.

If you search Brock Bottom, one of the most common comments is: “great place for dog walking”. So I’m expecting a lot of bags hanging from trees, but there are none. Nor is there a speck of litter anywhere. The dog population of the UK exploded during Covid, and you’re the odd one out to be walking without a dog these days. It’s as if you need a canine companion to explain your presence out of doors. Not weird, mate, honest. Just walking the dog.

Downstream, the riverside isn’t especially accessible. It’s also what photographer’s call “a bit messy”. What that means is there’s a riot of shape and colour in which it’s difficult to isolate a particular subject. You can take a dozen pictures and in every one it would be impossible to say what it was you were looking at. Some places are better simply experienced, and defy summing up in a photograph. This bit of the River Brock is one of them. The waters run clear through a tumble of rocks and fallen trees. The banks are thick with vegetation.

Earlier this week I was roughly equidistant, south of Preston, at Birkacre, another wooded valley, one where the ramsons have already finished. But here they’re still in their prime, competing with common mouse ear. And the woodland is thickly carpeted with bluebells. A yellow wagtail keeps pace with us, hopping from rock to rock. Tall, exotic-looking butterburrs crowd the riverbank. There is season, and then there’s climate. And then there is microclimate. Nature is too subtle to obey general rules on the timing of events.

I am not a botanist, but I do enjoy spotting wildflowers, then looking up their names. I’m guessing the more wildflowers you can count in an area is a sign of a healthy environment. If that’s so, then the valley of the River Brock is in good shape.

Everyone knows bluebells. Mayflowers, and stitchwort, though, are less “in your face”. Indeed, I’ve never seen stitchwort before – not at all common in my locale, but growing in profusion here. Its flower is impossibly intricate and beautiful,…


After only a mile or so, I make the first navigational error, ending up on a path heading out of the valley, across meadows, towards a farm where the dog is loose and aggressive. I’m not for turning back, but then I don’t want to end up in A+E either, and this dog looks mean. I can hardly show it the map and say look, this is a public footpath so f$%k you. I guess the attack will come when I cross the line into the farmyard, even though it is a right of way. Is nobody home to call it off? Maybe it’s just bluffing. Or perhaps I’d better turn back after all,… this is not a good start.

The farmer appears at the last minute, calls it off, apologises. I’m not convinced, though, and suspect they want to discourage passers by. Anyway, we pick up our course again, finding our way back down into the river valley. Here, we discover the biggest scouting centre I’ve ever seen. There are tents everywhere and youngsters happy to be separated from their phones. They are playing with canoes and bows and arrows and tomahawks instead. This is proper stuff.

I enjoyed my time as a cub-scout. It seems incredible now, but fixed bladed knives were part of the uniform. I don’t suppose they are now. We wore them in scabbards, razor sharp, and polished up with pride. Mine was a bowie knife. I was especially proud of it, learned how to throw it, and we were generally trusted to behave ourselves. Sticking them in one another was the last thing on our minds. Knives were different then, not weapons, but tools. We’d be arrested now, wearing them on our way to the hut, like we used to do. I wonder what happened, what changed, to make it so.

I don’t know why I went wrong back there – enchanted by the woodland faery, perhaps? The way is clear enough, the paths well-marked, and I’m following a GPS trail on the phone – so no excuses. Anyway, we’re on track now, and we find ourselves climbing up Beacon Fell. This is a modest hill, but quite prominent, rising above meadows, on the edge of Bowland. Its wonderful views make it a popular destination for visitors. Part forested, it boasts many trails, and viewpoints.

Sculpture, Beacon Fell

I’ve met so few people on the route, I don’t want to spoil the sense of peace and isolation, so I avoid the main summit, and pick out a bench in a recently cleared area instead. The day has warmed to a high summer sultriness. We have terrific visibility over the Fylde coast, then north to the Lakes. South, towards my home patch, Lancashire melts into a soft haze, and a shimmer of heat.

Descending from here, the views over the Fylde get better and better. I’m three quarters of the way down, and pause to take it in. Then I get this funny feeling something is amiss. Hard to pin it down,… then, even harder to believe: I’ve left my rucksack on the top of the fell.

I’m guessing it must be on that bench, but I’m tiring now, and baulk at the idea of having to climb back up. I’ve no choice, though. It contains my soup pot, and a decent waterproof jacket. It’s strange, how quickly you can climb, when you’re motivated – tired or not. I reach the bench, and there’s the rucksack, looking at me with an accusatory stare. I’ve left a few sit-mats lying around. That’s an easy thing to do. But, for pity’s sake: your rucksack?

So, we enjoy our second rest at the viewpoint. While we’re at it, we empty the water bottle, as the sweat pours out of us, and the heartbeat settles back to normal. Sometimes my head goes sideways and I enter a different universe. At this rate, I’ll struggle to find my way home, satnav or not, especially with the little blue car sulking at me. But on such a beautiful day as this, it doesn’t matter how short or long the route home. And she’ll come round.

Reunited with our gear, we make the descent again, ticking off country lanes, birdsong, lush meadows, and lone trees. Then we’re back in the shady hollow of Brock Bottom, which is by now steaming as if it’s August, not mid-May. A terrific round, one I will repeat, and hopefully get right next time. About six and a half miles, eight hundred feet of up and down, but that second ascent of Beacon Fell is optional.

Drybones Dam, River Yarrow, Coppull

We have been to Chorley, to the B+Q emporium, exchanging a length of drainpipe for what we hope is one of the right size this time. Whilst there, we noticed they have opened a new Home Bargains store across the road, and could not resist a mooch. We bought a cheap Chinese lantern for the garden pond. They sell sandwiches, too, so we bought one for lunch. Then we drove the short distance to Coppull, to the Birkacre visitor centre.

So, here we are, back on the old patch, coffee at the Treeface café. It’s a sultry day for the circuit. The big lodge is looking forlorn, only half full, having sprung a leak. Investigations and remediations continue. Built in the later part of the eighteenth century, the lodge was ground zero for the industrial revolution. It’s lasted well, then, and I do hope they manage to fix it up, as it’s a very pleasant stretch of water.

Repairs to Birkacre’s Big Lodge, Coppull

I am reminded it was once in much worse condition. Owned by an Angling club, whose volunteer water baliffs used to chase us off, it went slowly to ruin from the later seventies. Drained and derelict, it became an ugly basin, thick with scrub. We locals, brought up on walks around the lodge, and generally contemptuous of the baliffs, used to dream of its restoration. Then, Chorley Council bought it, and have done wonders. Far from discouraged, now, it welcomes visitors, and they come in their droves. It can be a bit of a doggie heaven, so not suited to all, but we can soon evade the crowds by venturing deeper into the woods.

This piece was to be titled “Springtime and the horseshoe of the Yarrow”, but I am several weeks too late. Only a week ago, in the Dales, spring was at its peak. The starry ramsons, in Foss Wood, were at their most pungent prime. Here, they’ve mostly finished. Their leaves are yellowing, dying back. The wood anemones, too, have finished, and the common mouse ear is taking its place in snowy waves. The bluebells persist, and campion is flourishing in the moist, shady hollows.

I am sorry to have missed the anemones, but a close look in the undergrowth reveals one hanging on against the season.

The last anemone, Drybones Wood, Coppull

This is an ancient way, along the horseshoe of the River Yarrow, from Birkacre to Duxbury. A rare stretch of ancient woodland, its paths can be heavy with mud, at least beyond the falls at Drybones Dam. Today, though, we are able to make way with care. It’s not that long ago the Himalayan balsam ran riot here, smothering all this wonderful diversity of flora. But a concerted effort over the years has restored the richness of habitat, and the depth of colour.

In the deep of the wood, we meet a man with a large bulldog. It’s a jolly creature that seems beside itself with excitement. After chasing its tail for a bit, it splats down in a puddle of mud, then launches itself at its owner. The man is none too pleased to have his trousers ruined. The bulldog lollops around, then goes for the puddle again. The man is telling it not to dare.

“He’s playful,” I comment.

That’s a mistake. The dog is a gregarious sort, and now includes me in the game. The man calls it off just in time, and I am spared its affections, and the washing machine.

Where the meadows of Hall Farm run down to the edge of the wood, the council used to tip refuse, well into the 1960’s. This can’t have been a pretty sight, dustbin wagons spewing their steamy loads. So what has the appearance of grassy hummocks, is actually a trove of tin cans and bottles, now, that once ran like scree slopes, into the woods. As far as I can work out, the older stuff is the furthest to the south. Here you can find fancy bottles from the Victorian, and the early twentieth century.

Bottle, ancient tip, Hall Wood, Coppull

It’s not a place I like to root, it being littered with glass shards. But we were less concerned with such things as children, and were often to be found among the nettles and bumblebees, poking with sticks for treasure. Today we have a cautious mooch for old time’s sake, and turn up a medicine bottle. It is engraved with the name of a London apothecary. It’s broken a bit at the top, so it’s junk, I suppose. Were it complete, later researches reveal it would fetch over twenty quid on eBay.

On we go a little way to where Ellerbrook joins the Yarrow. Ellerbrook emerges from the spoil heaps of the old Ellerbeck colliery, where my father worked until its closure in 1965. The brook used to run a rusty orange, while the heaps gently smouldered, and stank of sulphur. The waters are clear, now, the spoil heaps reclaimed by nature over a half a century. We can be a terrible destroyer of the earth but, given time, Nature can heal the mess. I am told there are even Salmon in the Yarrow, now.

Speaking of collieries, the area is dotted with sinister dimples in the earth, marking the positions of old shafts. The Coal Authority has a list of those that are known. They supply an interactive map to the British Geological Survey. The map is used by developers as a precaution against building over fearful voids, or in areas that might be prone to subsidence. But mining in this area was so feverish down the centuries, not all mines are listed. There is the outline of a shaft-top here cutting part way into the brook. My father pointed it out to me when I was a boy, and so far as I’m aware he was the only one who knew about it. It’s certainly not on the Coal Authorities map.

Outline of shaft, Hall Wood, Coppull

After crossing the meadows that come down from Grundy’s Lane, we enter Duxbury Wood. Then it’s up to the new developments on Burgh Lane, which are always threatening to encroach further, sealing up the green gap between Chorley’s southern suburbs and Coppull. We return to the lodge via Primrose Hill. Such a small corner of the world. It’s far from dramatic, and has suffered the usual threats from development and, before that, scarred by industry. But it’s where I grew up, and where I still return, to measure the seasons by the wax and wane of the wildflowers, and the turn of the leaves of the beech, and the oak, and the sycamore.

Approaching Burgh Lane

Just three miles round, and a couple of hundred feet of gentle up and down. Wild flowers, woodland and water. I hope I managed to get the right drainpipe this time.


Evening, Southport Pier (by me)

It was the late great Kurt Vonnegut who reminded us the arts are no way to make a living. You can apply this to any of the arts – writing, poetry, painting, photography – all things we amateurs take great pleasure in. This is a pity, but it’s also an obvious fact of life in a world that values capital, above soul.

We might wind up in a toxic job, suffering under bad bosses, and psychopathic colleagues. Or maybe it’s more simply that we find the day-to-day business of paid work unfulfilling, because that’s just the way contemporary work is organised, robbing us of all sense of our own agency. It is only through our art, carried out in free time, we become re-animated through our satisfaction in what we do, and by exploring life’s meaning. Through the lens of art, life takes on a greater depth and a richness. Without it, life is featureless and void as any workplace on a wet Monday morning. We can hardly be blamed then for making the connection, and wanting to earn a living by our art. During my own early working life, I sought financial independence by writing, and by landscape photography. Neither worked out. Obviously, some artists do make it, but for the main part, at least, Kurt was right: it’s no way to make a living.

The Ruined Windmill, Harrock Hill, Lancashire (by me)

Some formerly amateur “hobby” photographers have made a success of themselves by virtue of the Internet, setting up smart YouTube channels where they can be the stars of their own show. I follow a few, find them entertaining, and a useful source of tips and tricks, but I have also noticed they are not making a living from photography. When we look more closely, we realise that although their photographs are very accomplished, they are making a living by selling a lifestyle. They gain followers, and thereby earn ad revenue, and sponsor products and services. They also hold workshops which others pay to attend. As for their picture, they actually make very little from sales. Like everyone else, then, they have to reach beyond their art in order to pay the bills. If you are an articulate, good-looking and charismatic individual, moderately skilled in picture taking, I dare say you might do as well as any other YouTube photography guru. If, however, you are an introverted, camera shy, tongue-tied old gargoyle (like me), it’s probably better giving it a miss.

Bank End Farm, Cockerham Marsh (by me)

But this does not mean the art of photography is denied us. Quite the opposite. We have the opportunity to become much more intimately acquainted with it, to truly grow our souls by it, undistracted by the need to apply our art to the business of making money. That said, we have to reconcile ourselves to making a living by conventional means, and making our peace with it. Then we can begin to explore the art in photography.

It would be vain to call myself a photographer. I have a smattering of technical knowledge gained ad-hoc over a lifetime of simply fiddling with cameras. I have picked up compositional guidelines – the rule of thirds, for example, or the Golden Mean. I can talk about the times of day when the light is more interesting, more dramatic, but if we are not selling our photographs, these details are secondary. What brings us back to photography, to the frame and the shutter, is something else.

“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Lone figure, on a hill. Rivington, Lancashire. (by me)

This comes close to nailing it for me. My own photography is mainly landscape and rural scenes. It fits in with a love of exploring those wild places that remain to us, here, in the British Isles, mostly the North of England within a radius of a couple of hours drive from home. I walk with a camera. Just a camera. Too much gear, and especially a lumbering great tripod, gets in the way of the freedom to move, to stalk those things Cartier-Bresson describes as continually vanishing. And in the hills you are better packing an emergency bivvy bag and an extra layer of clothing than, say, a bag of photographic filters or other accessories you are unlikely to use.

A patch of light on a fellside, a dramatic formation of clouds, above a light-painted tree, a single mountain standing out from its neighbours by dint of time and light, and moment. All these things are continually vanishing. Blink and they are gone forever. They are moments to be enjoyed in the moment, of course, as we bear them witness, and this is the pleasure of the walk. But if we can return home with a camera full of images, we can continue to explore our day though the dimension of the photograph, and what more we can draw out of it in the (digital) darkroom.

Penyghent, Yorkshire Dales National Park (by me)

This way, an afternoon’s walk, say in the Yorkshire Dales, can be enjoyed, relived, and explored for the rest of the week, or longer as old photographs are revisited. And sometimes even the shots we thought blurred and uninspiring can reveal something new, something unexpected at a later date in their colours, shapes, or contrasts. This is the art in photography, and anyone can do it if they are so minded.

How we develop as photographers is down to individual experience. Beyond a basic grasp of the triangle of shutter, aperture and ISO, the rest is application and, here, as Bresson says, your first 10,000 photographs will be your worst. In other words, we gain nothing by having our camera in a box. We must get out there, and use it.

“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”

Ansel Adams

Drinkwaters farm (ruin), Anglezarke moor (by me)

The difference between a snap and a photograph is in the perspective. Two photographers can capture the same subject. One will record the subject as existing, in a documentary fashion, the other will frame and express it, and add to it something of the moment. It’s like looking at an apple. Fine. It’s an apple. But how does it make you feel? How you express that is down to where you stand.

As for the kind of camera, a simple phone camera has plenty to teach, and reveals as much about the art in photography as a top of the range Leica or a Hasselblad. Art is not about counting pixels. It’s about growing the soul. And the art is in the image, even a grainy one. I am still discovering things in pictures I took twenty years ago, with a 3 megapixel camera – considered the bee’s knees at the time – when now even 24 megapixels is pedestrian, at least from a technical perspective. And personally speaking, I shall never bottom the potential of my 24 megapixel Nikon, and to which I apologise, for I am sure it would perform much better in more capable hands.

But then:

“All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.”

– Elliott Erwitt

And, likewise, all the megapixels in the world are secondary to the eye’s ability to look and to truly see whatever it is looking at.

Thanks for listening.


Pikedaw, Yorkshire Dales

Late March, four years ago. Little did we know, but it was to be our last year of freedom for a while. I climbed Pikedaw, a little visited summit to the west of Malham, in the Yorkshire Dales, and was very glad I did. I thought I’d written it up on the blog, but I’ve searched my back numbers in vain and conclude I must have imagined it. Then again, I’m increasingly caught out not knowing what day it is, these days.

When it comes to eye-catching scenery, Malham has it all: the splendid little waterfall of Janet’s Foss, the great defile and occasional film-set of Goredale Scar, and of course the stupendous drop of the Cove. Naturally, this makes it something of a draw for visitors. Indeed, I suspect there are no quiet days here any more, but if your taste is for the quieter, wilder side, you can still escape the crowds in five minutes, and not see a soul. If that’s your bag, then Pikedaw is for you.

So, here we are again, in Malham. We’ve arrived too late for the free roadside parking, which is already tailed as far back as the village bounds. The National Park car-park is filling up too, but the little blue car manages to find a spot between a pair of enormous SUV’s. The evidence of the state of our provincial towns is that the country is in ruins, while paradoxically strung with jolly bunting as if in celebration of it. Meanwhile, the national parks are increasingly dominated by wannabe country squires and these gargantuan latter-day shooting brakes. The little blue car looks like a child’s pedal toy beside them, but I know which I’d prefer to be threading along the narrow lanes of the Yorkshire Dales. We clocked 98,000 on the drive in, and she still handles like new.

The plan is to take the paths west, to a meeting of ways on the high moors, near the ancient Nappa Cross. We’ll be calling at Pikedaw on the way, but the summit is not the main objective. A little below it, and commanding a view over the dale is a lone ash tree, one of my favourite lone trees, and I want to photograph it. From Nappa Cross, we’ll then navigate the moors amid the rapture of skylarks, coming out at the tail end of the dry valley known as the Watlowes. This is where we’ll pick up the crowds again, and join in with the slow shuffle, via the well-worn trail by the Cove, across Malham Rakes, to Goredale, and finally Foss Wood.

To begin, though, we climb along dusty, stony farm lanes, dotted with picturesque barns and amid lush pastures. At the first of these barns, we are threatened by a vicious looking brute of a dog. But I remember it from last time, so I have its measure. It is chained sufficiently to allow it to leap onto the wall and play merry hell with passers-by. One overenthusiastic slip, though, and it will end up hanging itself. I advise it, in passing, to watch its step, for it is clearly an ill-tempered beast, and unlikely to attract much by way of sympathetic assistance.

From here we have a view of Pikedaw. It’s not a prominent summit, which is perhaps why it does not receive more visitors, even though it is signposted from the village. After the last of the barns, we leave the farm track, and the way becomes suddenly vague, crossing a broad meadow. The park authority have been out placing notices, begging that dogs be kept on leads in order to protect ground nesting birds. Larks seem not to be struggling this year, but I have seen fewer lapwing and curlew. The meadow is grazed by Belties, and they have knocked one of the signposts over. We plant it upright again, for all the good it will do.

There is just the faintest indication of a walked way here. It runs roughly west of north-west, to intersect the wall below Hoober Edge, and it is here we find our tree. Unlike many ash trees on my home patch, in Lancashire, and which are showing signs of die-back, this one looks to be thriving, perhaps on account of its remoteness. We sit a while, watching the light change across the dale, and we get our shot. Damn those smug Yorkshiremen. They’re right. This is surely God’s own county.

So, four years since I was last here? No way! It feels like yesterday. I remember how I puffed and panted up the hill on that occasion, and I seem to be no fitter today, in spite of being out on a hill most weeks ever since. It seems all improvements in fitness are eventually overtaken by that great leveller: age. Still, so long as I can put one foot in front of the other,…

The path meanders its way past Pikedaw, with no clear route up it, so we are left to make our own way. The summit cairn is actually a Bronze Age burial, with a distinctly wonky stone cairn plonked on top. As a viewpoint it is superb, especially towards the east, over Malhamdale. We have a wonderful blue sky, across which sails an armada of fluffy clouds, rendering the land in dynamic light and shade. The greens darken to viridian, then warm slowly as they brighten almost to yellow, aided in no small part by a profusion of dandelion, and lesser celandine.


From here, our way leads north to intersect the main path coming up from Fair Sleet’s Gate. The problem is this is open country, and there is a wall in the way. Heading due north, by compass, however, brings us to a gate which can be carefully vaulted. The wall is showing signs of damage. These are delicate structures and prone to collapse, if one is foolhardy enough to try to mount them. We should respect them. They are ancient structures and a pain for the hill farmers to repair. The gate has been set aside. Our way is clear, and we meander across to meet the path, then turn west towards the Nappa Cross, and lunch.

Dating from between the ninth and the fifteenth century, not much of the original cross survives. It’s no longer even in its original position, having been moved a little way off and built into a wall. Still, it survives as an antiquity on the OS maps and, though not considered worthy of listed status any more, it is at least deserving of a photograph.

Nappa Cross

From here, the bleakness of the moor is broken by the glittering eye of a distant Malham tarn, which also serves as our way marker, and brings us down to the road near the Watlowes. As predicted, it is here we pick up the company of others. The path through the deep defile of the Watlowes is narrow to begin, and our way is impeded by walkers of indifferent ability. To be fair, the limestone is worn smooth here by long decades of visitors, and can be tricky for the less sure-footed. There are Highland Angus calves grazing the fellside.

Eventually the valley opens out onto the top of the dizzying cove. At one of the last stiles before the cliff edge, we encounter a sobering notice, suggesting the cove’s use as an exit for troubled souls. Indeed, I am reminded of the last time I was here, when someone had gone over to their death, a grim scene with cops on the skyline, and the air ambulance making a precarious approach.

I note with some unease the people who must gather as close as possible to the edge, perhaps for the thrill of it. It is a thrill I cannot share, and turn away from the place. A fearful spot, it gives me the willies. Anyway, climbing slightly from the cove to a less airy place, we are able now to look back at the dry valley of the Watlowes. One side is catching the sun, the other in deep shadow. This is Dales scenery at its finest and most rugged.

The Watlowes

Another mile brings us down to the chuck wagon at Goredale, where we splash out on a restorative brew and a Kitkat. Inflation has hiked the price of a four fingered Kitkat to £1.00. Here, it’s really busy. One family are trailing a pack of ten little yappy hounds. They are making an awful racket, and the hounds are no better. I overhear that they are visiting the falls in the scar, a spectacular sight, but overly populated now by people and Instas who saw it on TV, it having starred as scenery in various movies and dramas. We shall give it a miss.


Similarly, a huge school party is hogging the view at Janet’s Foss, the teacher delivering a stern, open air lecture on how to behave. I do feel for him, having discovered long ago that children and water are bound to combine eventually. We pass by unseen. Sunlight is filtering pleasantly through the little patch of woodland, the air thick with the scent of allium. Springtime is such an uplifting season, I would sooner swap it for the stultifying heat and heavy greens of summer any time. For all of its busyness, there is still something heavenly about Malham and its environs, something also, by contrast, hellish about the coves and scars, but which are also beautiful if held at bay by the safety of a telephoto lens.

And then we’re back at the little blue car, which is catching the cool shade between its bulked up SUV minders. We peel the top down. From here to the A59 at Gisburn is what the car was made for, especially on days like this, but first we’ll call at the farm shop for cheese.

Wensleydale of course.

Seven and a bit miles round, fifteen hundred and fifty-ish feet of ascent.


M6 Northbound. 10:00 AM. The forecast was for minus two overnight, and nippy all day, but the day is already shaping up to be a warm one. We’re heading for the pretty little Dales village of Clapham. As we drive, the mind meanders, pausing now and then on a snippet of news picked up from this morning’s dawn doomscroll. The chief economist of the Bank of England, a Mr Pill, tells us we must accept we are all a lot poorer, now, and stop expecting it to get any better, and certainly not by agitating for a pay rise. Mr Pill’s pill is indeed a bitter one, and I must be careful not to choke on it.

The run east from Crook O Lune, through Caton and Hornby, towards the Dales is such a beautiful drive. Conditions look perfect for the hills, and a little route I’ve not walked before. We’ve got a blissful blue sky, and meadows so green they make your heart ache. Ingleborough puts in an early appearance, and tells us we’re nearing our destination. The plan is to visit an upland area littered with boulders that came from the Lake District, during the last glacial period. These are the Norber Erratics, and I’ve had them on my list for a long time.

Parking for a day in the Dales, is typically half the price of the Lake District. In terms of prettiness, Clapham is easily the equal of what the Lake District’s Grasmere might once have been, had it chosen another path, and which Grasmere has now lost to tourism. Thank heavens, Wordsworth never so much as hung his hat here. I’m sure there are many fine poets who have lived in Clapham, for the setting most definitely inspires verse, but they remain obscure. They attract neither pilgrimage nor the curse of memorabilia.

Clapham Tunnels

We head for the church, and enter the tunnels. These are a peculiar feature, giving access to the fells, but without our having to cross over land owned by the Big House. Instead, we go under it. I recommend a torch on poor days, or if returning in the gloom of twilight. I have literally fumbled blindly through them on occasion, but not today. After the tunnels, it’s a stiff climb up a broad track, then we’re on our way to Austwick, and Robin Proctor’s Scar.

Here we meet an enormous school group, and a lively bunch they are too. When my good lady was teaching, so many safeguards needed to be in place for a school outing, they were becoming all but impossible to organise. It’s good to see some schools still making the effort to get out of doors, but cheery as these youngsters are, I’m glad they’re coming down, and not going up at the same time as me.

Robin Proctor’s Scar

Just past the scar, a path strikes north, climbing to the plateau where most of the erratics are scattered. They are indeed an impressive sight, some of them massive, and beautifully weathered – much darker gritstone rocks, sitting atop the white of the native limestone. This is a place to loiter, so I do, prowling around for photographs, most of which I manage to fluff.

This is said to be one of the premium sites in the British Isles for students of geology, and it’s plain to see why. Interesting glacial factoids: twelve thousand years ago, the ice was half a mile thick, and the last British glacier to disappear was in the Cairngorms, only three or four hundred years ago.

Norber Erratics

We decide upon our favourite erratic, hunker down beside it to take in the view and rest a while. What about that Mr Pill, eh? The foodbank queues are getting longer, the NHS is on its face and the poor have been huddling together in dedicated, council run warm spaces over winter. But this is the first time I’ve actually heard it admitted that there is no real concern among the plutocracy things should be better for the population at large, and no plan to get us even halfway out of the mess we’re in.

Anyway, we have a much more pressing problem now. The right of way gives out in a dead end, up ahead, and we must return to the valley, lose quite a lot of altitude if we are to pick up the path that will take us up Crummakdale. But I’ve just spotted a ladder stile that gives on to the open access land around Thwaite Scars. This is an area the map shows littered with cairns, and crags, so I suspect a profusion of faint ways, and long drops. With luck, we can contour round and intersect the Crummackdale path, without losing the height we’ve gained so far.

Over the stile, we follow the wall north. There is a faint way here, but hard to tell if it was made by sheep or man. Still, it’s easy going, and the wall draws us a good long way, before tumbling to ruin over precipitous crags. The path skitters along the edge of its remains, but the exposure is extreme. The route definitely shows use here, but perhaps by mountaineers who have more of a head for these things. As a humble pedestrian, I could be walking into trouble, so back track a little, try a faint path higher up the fell, and this brings us more safely around the dangers. The view of Penygent from this angle, is breathtaking.

Penyghent from above Crummackdale

A profusion of faint ways now crosses a more gently undulating area. The land closes in around us, pockets us quietly, and there is a sense of having lost one’s way. The mind temporarily misbehaves, refuses to think properly, confuses west and east. I’m probably wanting my lunch. The map on the phone spins uselessly around our position when we activate the electronic compass. An old Silva compass settles the argument, and on we go. Phones are great for pinpointing your position, and a real boon in bad weather, when you might otherwise be reluctant, or even unable to unfold a map. But an analogue compass is still a good thing to carry, if only to set north.

Anyway, we crest a hill and the massive cairn on Long Scar rises into view, Ingleborough beyond. A friendly hand, it waves the traveller in. Over here, it says.

The cairn on Long Scar

Lunch at the cairn. We are a little way above the grand fissure that is Trow Ghyll, a popular route up Ingleborough. Our way is clear, now: simply pick up the head of Long Lane, and follow it back to Clapham. This is a daunting proposition, though. Long Lane is so named for obvious reasons. Arrow straight, a rough track bordered by drystone walls, it undulates into infinity. There is no past, no future, and an almost supernatural lack of progress when walking it. There is only an infinite now. Fortunately, that now is in the midst of some of the finest Dales scenery.

Long Lane

I don’t know in what context Mr Pill was speaking, nor what the media intended we are supposed to make of it. At face value, it seems an incredibly crass thing to say. And anyway, he’s wrong, because on days like this, in places like this, we are all enriched beyond measure.

About seven miles round, seventeen hundred feet of ascent.

Image by Nightcafe Studio AI

There is no shortage of criticism of the artificially intelligent chatterbot ChatGPT. I’ve been snippy about it myself, here. It takes only a few Q+A’s to work out it’s mostly peddling BS. The one good thing we seem to hear about is the plausibility of its answers. But plausibility does not always equate to truth. I asked it to list the novels of “Michael Graeme”, thinking it would tell me it had never heard of him, but it did not. It went on to list a few of the books I’d written, along with many titles I had not, and which – more to the point – did not exist. It appears to make stuff up. And it’s good at it.

Now, of course, I’m anthropomorphising. It does not actually “make stuff up”. Only humans can do that. It’s more that the way it is programmed causes it to give the impression it makes stuff up. ChatGPT is what they call a large language model. It takes an input, and generates an output based on a statistical analysis of the huge pool of linguistic data at its disposal. But that linguistic data is the product of generations of human beings. It is our written language. Our language is at the core of ChatGPT. We are its DNA.

Writers of fiction have much in common with ChatGPT’s ability to make up stories. Stories are plausible lies. The difference between us and con-men, and ChatGPT is we do it for art and entertainment, and our readers are complicit. We take a character, put them in a situation, and see how they react. The plausibility of their reaction depends on their nature. Act too much out of character and the reader isn’t going to be convinced. Similarly, slip an alien abduction scene into the last chapter of a gothic love story, and the reader is going to feel cheated.

We can go the whole hog and ask ChatGPT to write an entire story for us: Give me a thousand-word story about a man who finds an abandoned car with a body in the boot. ChatGPT will deliver. But don’t expect to win any prizes with it.

A more intelligent way of using it is as a sounding board for ideas. You’ve already written part of the story. You’ve got your guy, he’s come across an abandoned car. He flips the boot lid, discovers the body. Let’s add a bag of cash. The guy’s basically an honest, decent type, but he’s hard up, needs cash badly,…

But then you get stuck. The imagination won’t come up with the next piece of the puzzle. Perhaps you don’t want to sound too corny, too obvious, but whatever you come up with must still be plausible. You could ask a fellow writer. Give me some ideas for what might happen next, and the likely consequences? Or you can ask ChatGPT. So I did.

ChatGPT says, and I quote verbatim:

As an AI language model, I must clarify that the following actions and consequences are hypothetical and should not be taken as legal advice. The actions of the man in this scenario would also depend on his personal values and ethics, which can vary from person to person.

With that said, here are some possible actions and their consequences that the man may take upon discovering the abandoned car, body, and cash:

Call the authorities: The most ethical and responsible action would be to call the police and report the incident. This would potentially help in identifying the body and also in tracking down the owners of the cash.

Consequences: If the man chooses this option, he may not receive any monetary benefit from the cash, but he would have acted in a morally and legally responsible manner.

Take the cash and leave the body: The man may decide to take the bag of cash and leave the body, without reporting the incident to the authorities.

Consequences: This action would be illegal, as taking the money would be considered theft. If he is caught, he could be charged with theft and possibly even with being an accessory to a crime, since he did not report the discovery of the body. Furthermore, he may experience psychological trauma due to the guilt and anxiety associated with his actions.

Take the cash and report the body: The man may decide to take the cash and report the discovery of the body to the police.

Consequences: This action may be seen as a middle ground between the first two options. While taking the money would still be considered theft, reporting the discovery of the body could help the authorities in their investigation. If the man is caught, he may face legal consequences for stealing the money but may also receive some leniency due to his cooperation with the authorities.

In conclusion, the most ethical and legal course of action would be for the man to report the discovery of the abandoned car and the body to the authorities. While taking the money may seem tempting, it would ultimately lead to negative consequences and potentially serious legal trouble.

The first option is the most obvious, and advisable to take in real life, but we’re dealing with fiction here and that would be the end of our story, rather than the beginning. The second option, take the cash and sneak off with it, don’t report the body, suffer guilt as a consequence, and legal peril when the cops catch up,… that’s perhaps the most obvious choice for a story, as well as being entirely plausible. But it’s probably already been written, and a thousand movies based up on it,…

The third option, take the cash but report the body, I’d not considered. It’s slightly less obvious, perhaps, and could be an interesting alternative. Already the imagination has latched onto it and is feeling out its potential.

This is a simplistic example, but we can see how ChatGPT helps us explore ideas, and in a way that is meaningful to us as writers and, ultimately, to our readers as well, but without falling for the fallacy that it can simply do our job for us.

ChatGPT and its ilk are here to stay. They will of course be used in stupid and inappropriate ways by time-pressed or just lazy people. They will be used by unscrupulous or just cowardly bosses as a proxy for treating their workers badly. They are being used to write advertising copy, filling the blank spaces on those corporate blogs. Students are using them to write essays, which they submit verbatim for assessment. Like any new, transformative technology, AI can be society’s worst enemy, its best friend, or more likely a bit of both. If facts and truth are your business, I’m still of the opinion it’s best avoided, at least for now. But if it’s ideas you’re exploring, like any conversation, it can stimulate your own imagination into coming up with things you’d not considered, but which nonetheless already exist, albeit in nascent form, like fish in the vast ocean of our linguistic heritage. ChatGPT, used wisely, can be a means of simply fishing for them.

On Cartridge Hill

When the Soviet Union collapsed, footage emerged of Russian motorists travelling deeply potholed roads, even in their major cities. The poor benighted souls, we thought. But our sympathies were edged with more than a hint of smugness. After all, our own infrastructure could never fall into such a parlous state as that. Could it? Fast-forward twenty years, and we can tell we’re entering the environs of Chorley by the sheer violence its roads are doing to our suspension. Thus, we shake, rattle and roll towards the Hartwood roundabout. It’s a beautiful morning, a top-down day, and the little blue car has an excited buzz about her. We’re heading over to Tockholes for a walk up Cartridge Hill, on the edge of the Darwen Moors.

As we make way, I note there is nothing by way of reminder there are local elections on the 4th of May. There are no posters in windows, and I’ve had no leaflets through my door. I suppose they’re always a low-key affair, few punters bothering to turn out. But there seems something almost secret about them this time.

The Labour Party usually retains overall control of the council, here. I don’t expect that will change. It’s not much of a bell-weather for the shifting political tides of the nation, though. That said, I suspect the Greens will do a little better than usual. I read they’re currently attracting disaffected lefties, upset by Labour’s rightwards drift. Disaffected Tories are going the other way, to Reform UK, though they’ve yet to field a candidate here. Thus, we become ever more polarised, and nothing gets any better.

So, we take the Blackburn road towards Brinscall, then Abbey, and the A675 towards Belmont. Chorley is never far from beautiful countryside. Soon, we’re cruising along rural roads, flanked by neatly clipped thorn hedging. We dally with the idea of parking at Ryal Fold, but it’s getting busy there, even of a mid-week. Instead, we settle on the quieter Crookfield Road carpark.

The moors surround us here, pale as straw, and stretching as far as the eye can see. We have a clear blue sky, but a cool wind blowing down from the heights. We step out to the sound of curlew and lark.

Just off a busy turnpike, the carpark is also a favourite with vans and rep-mobiles, guys pulling in for a break between appointments. There’s a boss class Beamer, leaking thump-whack music. Then there’s a beaten up builder’s van bearing the logo of a construction company. He’s listening to Dvorák’s New World, second movement – not heard that in a while. We park closer to the builder’s van, all the better to listen, as I change into my boots. Then we set off to rejoin the curlew and the larks. Unusual that, not the sort of thing you expect to hear coming from a builder’s van. It just goes to show, you can’t always tell the depths of a man’s soul by appearances. So, beware your prejudice.

When the larks are ascending, like they are today, it’s Vaughn Williams that comes more easily to mind. But for our ascent of Cartridge Hill, it’s definitely the New World that worms about in the ear. Composed in the 1890s, and inspired by his time in America, the symphony has great warmth. It conjures up, in my own mind at least, a spirit of optimism, an anticipation of the great adventure.

Considering how the summit of Cartridge Hill must be the least visited of the West Pennine tops – at least judging by the complete lack of detritus – the cairn here takes on a different appearance every time I come by. Although indistinct when viewed from the moor, the hill has a dominant position over the valley. As a viewpoint, it is well worth the effort for a seldom seen perspective.

But now I’m thinking we’ve done this the wrong way round, actually, and climaxed too soon. We’re barely a mile in, and the remaining four have not as much to offer. But that’s just our mood talking. Lunch is chicken soup, and a view to die for. Great Hill, across the way, is dominant. Over its shoulder, I can just about make out the three windmills at Cliff’s Farm, way down on the plain at Mawdesley, near home. Next time I’m there, I’ll have to see if I can make out Cartridge Hill. Thus is it we slot the pieces, one by one, into the map inside our heads. Except now, we rely on the sat-nav and other iron-brained devices to tell us where we are, and perhaps even who we are. And such questions as “what’s that hill over there” no longer have any meaning in the world.

On we go, then, picking up a faint way towards the little moorland oasis of Lyon’s Den. The moor is dust-dry, and sandy in places. The sun is blinding and the wind is keen. I wonder if we’re heading into another of those seasonal droughts that last until July.

Darwen Tower

A huge walking party is coming up from Ryal Fold. They are taking photographs of a distant Darwen Tower with their phones. It looks like they’re heading out that way. They’ll need to hang onto their hats. We leave them to it, and cut down to Ryal Fold. As we reach the lower pastures, dandelion and coltsfoot are in profusion. We’re tempted by a brew and a bacon butty at the Rambler’s Cafe. But they’re queuing out of the doors again, and time is getting on, the long haul up through the plantations still ahead of us.

In Roddlesworth

Mid-afternoon now, and sunlight is filtering through the trees of the plantation. They are mostly bare, and the mosses are luminous. As I’ve written before, the Tockholes and Roddlesworth plantations are a bit of a doggie place. Sure enough, I meet a couple of the new breed of professional dog walker, sleight looking girls with packs of big, bouncy dogs that seem barely in control. They talk to the dogs like they are little people, but can barely manage a passing hello for me.

Roddlesworth and Tockholes are at their best in the autumn. Springtime brings little of interest, none of the carpets of anemones and allium, and bluebells of more ancient woodland. Lone gateposts among the tree trunks mark a long-lost residence, while fragments of drystone wall and fallen tree, thick with moss, speak of a near perpetual winter wet.

The Well House – Hollins Head

It is indeed a long haul from the bridge over Rocky Brook, up past Slipper Lowe, with just a faint respite to the ruins of Hollins Head. A final pull brings us back to the car. Short and sharp. Five miles round and eight hundred feet, according to the Iron Brain. The builder’s van has gone, so has the Beamer. The New World and thump-whack. Each to his own.

There’s a Green candidate putting up in my ward. I’ve had to dig for the information. Should I lend him my vote this time? If there are elections in your area, do turn out, but remember your ID. I know,… it won’t change anything. I fully expect the potholes around Chorley will be even deeper this time next year. So it’s even more important to get out for a walk. Returning from a walk, the world always seems renewed, no matter what mess it appeared to be in before. It is less a path to wrack and ruin, and more another step in the great adventure.