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Hot day at the beach.
Blue sky and a hard sun,
softens now to haze of golden evening.
Skimpy girls twirl
in summer shimmerings,
and kiss-me colours,
while tanned boys
with sharp beards
point their chins in strutting play.
A medley of tongues,
and skins drift,
arm in arm, dreaming,
towards the pier’s westward end.
How beautiful we still are,
When our hearts transcend
the fear.

The M65 was strewn with junk. It was mostly soft stuff – huge chunks of rock-wool insulation. Traffic was weaving about to avoid it, in case it hid anything more solid. The less cautious slammed into it and the junk exploded, fragmenting across the carriageways. Some of it stuck under axles, creating long writhing tails, which then launched surprise attacks on the vehicles behind. Plastic bottles rained in glittering storms, bounced off the Tarmac and rolled willy-nilly. I tracked a sudden burst of them, manoeuvred around the majority, caught one under the front offside tyre, heard it crack, then saw it go flying into the car beside me. There were papers, more rock-wool, more bottles, polystyrene cartons, strewn all the way from Colne to Blackburn.

I caught up with the culprit, gave him a wide berth and shot past as fast as I could. It was a flatbed truck with a skew-whiff skip on it, stacked precariously high, and slowly divesting itself of its contents as it motored along in sweet oblivion. The door of the truck was emblazoned with words to the effect of: “so-and-so’s waste services, a proud champion of the environment”. Sometimes the jokes write themselves.

The Wycoller atom

It was late afternoon, and I was driving home after a day in the hills above Colne. I’d met a friend at the Ball Grove country park, on the Keighley road, and from there we’d walked up through Trawden, across the high meadows, into the shadow of Boulsworth hill. It had been a hot day for a hike, and we’d baulked at the hill itself, plodded on instead to Foster’s Leap, and the much graffitied and vandalized atom, then down to the ever popular Wycoller village. The little café was closed, so we’d plodded back to Ball Grove park. There, we managed a brew and a piece of cake in congenial surroundings, by the old mill pond.

View from inside the Wycoller Atom

I had sweated in a new pair of walking trousers. I’ve always skimped on them, but had decided to finally push the boat out on a well-known branded pair, made from recycled bottles, though obviously not the ones I would be later dodging on the motorway. The blurb had claimed they were waterproof, and breathable. I was dubious, but prepared to take a gambol, since I could leave the weight of additional over-trousers behind. However, though of a seemingly thin, summery material, they had proved warm and sticky on the legs – not at all comfortable.

Wycoller – Pendle in the distance

The trousers weren’t the only bit of kit to perform poorly. The camera was iffy too, but that turned out to be my fault. It was a cracking day for photography among the hills and dales of this beautiful part of Lancashire. I set the shots up as I usually do, but most of them came out grainy and – well – just weird. I’d been fiddling with it the night before, and forgotten to set it back to optimal, so I’d shot the day at low resolution, and 800 ASA. I’m reaching that stage when, if I’ve lost my car-keys, I check the fridge first. I should just stick the camera on auto and leave it there. It probably knows better than me.

So we didn’t do the summit, and I regret that now, but the day was long enough at nearly ten miles in the heat. I remember it was1986, or thereabouts, when I was last on Boulsworth hill – the actual summit being known as Lad Law. A friend of mine was planning an epic book called The Hills of Lancashire, and had asked me to illustrate the bigger summits with pen and ink drawings. I remember Boulsworth was a difficult one to illustrate – it having no characteristic shape to it, and the summit was like any other, with a few grit-stone rocks and a trig point. It was memorable mainly for the walk from Wycoller, which is a fine one indeed, and much recommended. It was memorable also for the views east over a wilderness of undulating moor, all the way to Yorkshire.

For the picture of Boulsworth, I tried to add interest by drawing the summit with a chap stood at the trig point. It’s probably me, looking windswept and moody. I came across those drawings recently, the memory of them seeming fresh, yet so long ago now. Thus, my sixty-year-old self presents here a couple of sketches on a medium that was undreamed of, when I drew them in my twenties. The book never came off, and my friend is gone now. I clearly fancied myself as a bit of an illustrator back then, as well as a best-selling novelist. Neither worked out. I was wise to stick at the day-job.

I don’t know how it is with women, but until the legs actually fail on a man, there’s something in us that does not age, and probably not even then. We’d met this trio of guys at the Ball Grove café. We’d seen them earlier on the hill. They had a dry, north-country sense of humour that was quick to surface, and we responded in kind. They looked to be in their late seventies but, during our brief exchange, I saw that crusty trio transform into boys again, as did my friend and I.

But then I look at the young chap I drew on the windy summit, back in ’86, and I remember something of the moodiness of those years, also the striving for a thing I didn’t know the shape of then, and I still don’t. I suppose the difference is learning to let it go, and in that sense at least I’m a lot younger now, than I was that day I first stood on Boulsworth hill.

Dear George,

In answer to your query, when we write long-form fiction, interesting things emerge. Whether the story ever sees the light of day or not, it is an exploration of ideas, of events salient to our attention, and to our sense of being, at least at the time of writing. It clarifies what it is we think, also what we think we think, but in fact do not. Thus, it points the finger at our bullshit, and our vulnerability to the subversion of our thinking by invasive memes.

Memes sweep the culture, inculcate it, shape it. They cling to our coat-tails like briars, and we must be careful of them. Are these the things we really think? Or are they infections we have picked up and would be better seeking a cure for them? And is there really any difference?

In our current work in progress we have picked up a few threads familiar from previous writings: the secret state, neo-pagan spirituality, depth psychology, the politics of inequality. This is normal, a kind of narrative continuity. But you are right to point out a meme I have missed, and which might be harmful to us both.

As near as I can tell, it is the meme that says the man’s too big – the man being any authority we labour under, or against. The man deploys his authoritarian tool-box to crush dissent, he twists every instrument of the law to protect himself, he is made of Teflon, nothing sticks, and no lie is too big. Indeed, lies are no longer lies in contemporary political parlance; they have become tactical deceits. As for that most urgent issue of global warming, it’s too late to alter the course of it, and since we’re all doomed anyway, why bother even talking about it?

My last hero, Rick, turned his back on climate activism and politics, and went to live with a magical woman in the equivalent of a walled, Edenic garden. I wasn’t happy with him for doing that, but given the nature of the woman, I couldn’t entirely blame him. But it was also a return to the womb, which is hardly a healthy state of affairs. The world is where we live, not the womb. That we are born at all means we have a responsibility to shape the Zeitgeist. Heaven or Hell? The choice, as you say George, is ours.

In my defence, I might argue I wanted others to be angry with Rick as well, for who else can we rely upon to put the world to rights if not our heroes? And when the heroes quit the field in despair at our apathy, it should be a wake-up call for the rest of us that something is seriously wrong. It was, then, a small gesture, rooted in reverse psychology, and probably futile. But, you ask, is there not also a danger I have fallen for my own meme, and begun to believe in it? The man’s too big, the man’s too strong. Go contemplate your navel.

In “a lone tree falls” Rick is reborn as you, George. You are a former intelligence officer, a man of middling rank, intimate with international affairs, familiar with facts that are kept from the rest of us for reasons both fair and foul, familiar too with facts that have been spun to the inverse of their original meaning. But now you too find yourself in the path of the bulldozer, and the big man bearing down. Like Rick, the solution I am suggesting for you is defeatist. You’re knocking on in years, you see the future of the UK as a kleptocratic failed state, buffeted by an increasingly violent climate, spiralling levels of poverty, and an infrastructure always on the verge of collapse. But since – forgive me George – you’ll be dead before the worst of it hits, why worry? Keep your head down. Pour yourself another G+T and salute the sunset.

However, I note your objection, and agree all of this is convenient for the kleptocrats. One wonders if such “resistance is futile” memes can be seeded in the mire of social media to purposely sprout invasive blooms of defeatist nihilism. I also note that to be accepting of what we cannot change is also touted, in the emerging self-help literature, as being psychologically mature – this particular meme coming out of the man’s misappropriation of Buddhist mindfulness techniques. We are taught now to move on from contentious issues as a form of self-preservation. We should not interfere to change the madness, says the man, but employ age-old psycho-technologies to merely cope with it, and therefore remain obligingly docile and economically productive, as we spiral down the vortex of heat-death.

Why do I suggest that you, dear George, escape your responsibilities by making off with a muse half your age, disappear on a canal boat into the sub-cultural wonderland of England’s inland waterways? Is this not another metaphor of the womb, like Rick’s Edenic garden? Have I not worked out yet that the man holds the plug, and can drain any medium of true flight? There is no escaping responsibility.

But what, exactly, are our responsibilities to the world, and to the species? To whom, or to what are we held responsible, and to what standard? I hear your complaint, George, that, though we men of senior years feel no longer capable of action ourselves, we should at the very least take care we do not infect the young, for there is nothing worse for a young person’s confidence than seeing a defeated old man preaching the nihilist memes he learned at the knee of his masters and economic betters. Who then can blame the young for retreating into the virtual worlds of their computer games, drawing their curtains against the light, and subverting intelligent activism into vile shouting matches on Twitter?

Do not be defeatist, be determined? Do not be bitter, be better? Do not resign, be resilient? I hear you, George. My powers are limited, but I’ll see what I can do to preserve your honour and dignity.

The new Dinkley Bridge, Hurst Green, Lancashire

July swells to a deeper green.
Riot of wildflower,
pointillistic specks
of yellow and blue,
in meadows left unmown.
Lazy smudge of ancient trod
under the steam heat of a
sunless afternoon,
while balsam and nettle,
and long, drooping grasses,
cross their sleepy arms
over seldom walked ways.

A short run out today, Hurst Green, Ribble Valley, a walk down to the new Dinkley foot-bridge on the river and a visit to Marles Wood. This is not a seldom walked way, indeed this attractive stretch of the Ribble is understandably very popular, but for some reason those lines came to me while I was walking it, as if I was the last man on earth.

I park the car at the village hall in Hurst Green – suggested fee £2.00, but I’m 20p short. It’s an honesty box and no one’s counting, so I don’t suppose they’ll know, or mind. It’s a stubbornly overcast day, with a steamy heat that saps the energy from one’s bones. I’m not really in the mood for walking far – just looking for a change of scene, and a run out to somewhere pretty. There’s a good circuit you can do on foot, down the river to Ribchester from here, then back up the Ribble Way, on the other bank, but something about the day has me spurning all ambition.

I find the bridge and cross it, then sit on the riverbank for lunch, while watching herons wading in the shallows, fishing for theirs. Big camera today, but not much to point it at yet, other than the herons. I never saw the original Dinkley bridge, a suspension type, built in 1951. It lasted until the floods in 2015, when it was finally damaged beyond repair. Work on a replacement was completed in 2019. This is a wider structure, firm under foot. The original had a reputation for being a bit wobbly.

The Ribble is a fine river, but very little of it is accessible to the public. I have traced my finger along it on the map from source to sea, always disappointed by how seldom the green pecked ways are able to hug its banks. Indeed, I read only 2% of England’s rivers are accessible to the curious pedestrian. This is irrespective of the so-called right to roam negotiated as part of the countryside and rights of way act. That adds up to over 40,000 miles of river we politely defer for private use. Yet rivers are such relaxing places to walk by, I wonder people are not more angry about being excluded from them.

Anyway, lunch done, we follow the path downstream. It dips in and out of company with the river. Photographic opportunities are few, not helped by the flat light. Just before we enter the gloom of Marles Wood, I chance upon a likely spot, only to find the view is occupied, and I should say significantly improved upon, by a couple of young ladies enjoying a spot of wild swimming. I defer the shot, not wishing to intrude upon their privacy.

After a mile or so, the path parts company with the river, and leads up to the Marles Wood car park. From here the way suggests a narrow stretch of road, by Salesbury Hall, along which the traffic seems to be moving too fast. Alternatively, the OS shows a network of paths that would provide a safer and more pleasant passage to Ribchester, but by now the sweat is dripping from my hat, so I decide to leave that adventure for another day. We turn around and retrace our steps, take in the views we’ve thus far had our back to.

Near Salesbury Hall, the river takes a sudden 90 degree bend, westwards. There is a fine view of it by a clutch of tree shaded rocks. I rest a while, reeling off shots, none of which do justice to the beauty of it. Here, in the mud, I spy a shiny 20p coin. It bodes good fortune.

We’ll take it back, for the car park.

River Ribble, from the Dinkley Bridge

Fair Snape Fell and Paddy’s Pole

It seems incredible, the last time I was in Chipping was December 2008. I arrived at first light and drove home in the dark, after following pretty much the route I’ll be following today. Chipping hasn’t changed much. It’s still as elusive a place as ever, to non-locals, though quite a substantial and indeed a very pretty village when you do manage to find it. The roads that morning were icy, and the tops were snowy. Today is forecast for eighteen degrees, but warming already to considerably more than that. I was sad to note in passing the demise of the little Cobbled Corner café, so beloved of cyclists and walkers. We arrive to find the car-park is empty, but then this is a mid-week morning.

I have a chair that was made in Chipping. The H J Berry factory, famous for furniture making since 1840, closed in 2010, finally crushed by the financial collapse. The site is still being cleared this morning. I guess it’ll go for houses. My dining table was made by William Lawrence of Nottingham. That place closed in 2000. I can just about grasp the scale of the loss in terms of skills and livelihoods, but I need a very flexible view of economics to understand why it makes better sense now, if I want something so basic as a chair or a table, to have it made in China, and shipped halfway round the world, regardless of the carbon footprint that implies. The likes of H J Berry and William Lawrence are not coming back. Maybe other, more modern manufactories will replace them in the post BREXIT world. I don’t know. All I know is the shape of the future Global Britain remains, as ever, a mystery.

Anyway, it’s a hot morning, with something of a haze about it, which bodes ill for photography, but we’ll see what comes out. We wend our way out of the village, and pick up the track that takes us to Saddle End Farm, then we strike up Saddle Fell. This is the first leg of a fine horseshoe walk that’ll take in Fair Snape (1706 ft) and end with Parlick (1417 ft). That morning in 2008, I remember an inversion which obscured the tops, but which we came out of on the climb up Saddle Fell, to reveal a cloudless blue, and snow clad hills afloat on a sea of mist. It’s a scene I put in my last novel Winter on the Hill.

Parlick, from Saddle Fell

I must have been much fitter then, as I don’t remember as many of the ups and downs along the way that strike me today, in this heat. I remember tackling the fell without much difficulty, but then memory can be selective. Today I’m flagging, sweating, swigging water every five minutes. The horse-flies are taking lumps out of me, and I’m salving their bites with the now ubiquitous hand sanitizing gel. It seems to work too, and keeps the buggers off.

Although hazy, we still have a sufficiently awesome view across the vale to Longridge Fell. Our later objectives – Fair Snape and Parlick, rising above Wolf Fell, are starting to preen themselves in the light, as the morning matures, and are looking a lot bigger than I remember. These are substantial hills, Fair Snape only a little lower than the grand old lady Pendle herself.

It’s cooler as we crest the ridge and come onto the moor-top, but only because the air is moving a little. I remember skittering about on ice up here last time – the bogs all frozen deep. Today the moor is dry and dusty, the meandering trail leading us across to Paddy’s Pole on Fair Snape. There’s litter here, and the remains of past lunches. Paddy’s pole is – well – a pole sticking out of a substantial cairn. Nearby is a well constructed wind-shelter of dry-stone walling, comprising several stalls. Way south is Parlick, with its ever present coterie of paragliders. They were aloft that winter too. It was minus five on the summit then. Heaven knows what it was up around the paraglider man’s toes.

We have quite a drop in altitude, before the final pull to the stately dome of Parlick (1417ft). By now the hips are aching. I’m hoping this is just a bit of stiffness and not a sign of wear and tear. My mother’s hips began their decline around my age, rendering the last decade of her life one of severe immobility and frustration, even with an eventual replacement in her early eighties which she never really got the use of. We keep our fingers crossed, make hay while the sun shines and soldier on – to seriously mix our metaphors.

Fair Snape summit, looking back from the ascent of Parlick

The descent from Parlick is a steep one. We meet the paraglider men coming up with their huge packs, and pity them, though they look happy enough, and why not? Not all humans are destined to fly as they are. There is a hang-glider coming up too, rolled into a long and impossibly ungainly package, which the guy carries over his shoulder. He makes painfully slow progress, his brow dripping in the heat, and humidity. There is something messianic in his plodding torment. One hopes he manages to stay aloft long enough to make this purgatorial journey worth his while.

The thermals that will power his flight are in evidence around Fell Foot. They are like earth-scented blasts from an open furnace, and seeming strong enough even to lift my arms, though I obviously imagine it. Gaining the lower ground now, and slightly giddy in the heat, one is tempted to think the walk is over, but we’ve still a way to go and the navigation not so straight forward. Not all the paths are well-marked, and we’re outside the access area, so we must be careful. I’m trying to stay off the roads, but I lose the path around a place called Fish House, which is undergoing extensive rebuilding work, where neither signage nor evidence of gates or stiles exist any more so, in spite of our best efforts searching for a way through, we end up finishing the last mile into Chipping by tarmac.

There’s water in the car, which replenishes the shrivelled extremities, then a large Mocha from the farm shop does the rest. Here, I learn the Cobbled Corner Café is not gone forever, that it may reopen soon, which I’m sure is good news to many.

A fair day on Fair Snape, then, about eight and a half miles, sixteen hundred feet of ascent, four hours round. At this rate, we may even be fit enough to heave our bones up a mountain, before the year is out.

Drinkwaters farm (ruin) en route to Great Hill. West Pennine Moors.

The track to the cricket field at White Coppice is a mess. Heavy Covid traffic has left it with deep potholes. The little blue car would not have made it without beaching. It’s a good job we came in the little black one. The last time I was here, in November, the car-park at the cricket field was full by eight in the morning, and the whole length of the track was parked nose to tail. Today, it’s nearly lunch-time and the place is all but deserted. We have a choice of spaces, so we park facing the lovely green sward of the cricket field, the shaggy moors rising beyond. Are things are drifting back to normal after all?

We’re forecast a gloomy one today, promise of light rain from midday. It has a steamy, sticky feel to it down here, but it’ll be cooler on the moor. The plan is a short hike to the top of Great Hill and back, eight hundred feet of ascent, and about four miles round. There’s a guy in a camo poncho, peeling off his boots. He’s beaten us to it with an early start. He’s had the worst of the rain, too, which was heavy first thing, and he looks drenched. Sweat or rain, it’s hard to tell. He wears camo pants and a camo jacket underneath – oh, and a camo hat.

It’s interesting, this creeping militarization of the Zeitgeist. Then there’s this word “tactical” infiltrating the marketing of the gear we use, like we’re all on special operations, and war – or the preparations for it – are the most natural and desired state for human beings. We miss so much of the world when all we’re seeing are potential enemies, and states of alarm.

Ignore me. I’m grumpy. It was hard to get going this morning. I fussed about with the big camera, and lenses, then left them all behind in favour of the smaller Lumix. It’s less hassle, and half the weight. It also seems to like these conditions, meaning a flat light, and not much of it. With the Lumix, you can set a fairly small aperture for depth of field, and still achieve a decent shutter speed. We get around the flat light by shooting bracketed exposures and superimposing them, which brings out textures in the gloomiest of skies. I’ve been experimenting with the method all year, and it’s added a lot of interest to my outdoor photography. It doesn’t always work, sometimes looks overblown and silly, but that’s part of the fun, and we should never stop learning, no matter how old we are.

So, we wander first up through the long abandoned quarries, looking for fresh shots. But we’ve shot this place to death, over half a century, and not much appeals today, not even the waterfalls, which can manage barely a dribble after such a long period of dry. We climb onto the moor, intersect with the main route to the hill from White Coppice, and it’s here we encounter an elderly lady, from behind, squatting in the middle of the path, performing her ablutions. I have to blink and work out exactly what it is I’m looking at, then look away and try to unsee it.

I think it’s safe to say most walkers will have answered calls of nature in the outdoors. Also, none of our posteriors are getting any better for keeping, but perhaps I am too shy in seeking at least a modicum of cover for my modesty – a tree say, well off the path, or a wall – and, actually, it matters nothing if we disturb the horses. Still, I prefer to think there are certain standards to be upheld, and the lady certainly put me off my lunch.

Great Hill from Drinkwaters farm

Anyway, it’s one of those days when the muscles are slow to warm, and the spring in the heels is lacking. Half an hour to Drinkwaters’ farm, and – yes – lunch. I try to clear the image of the lady’s bottom from my head, but to no avail. Indeed, I think I am damaged by it. Anyway, third sycamore tree from the left, and a view of the moor from Spitlers’ to the Round Loaf, then down to the plain. This is one of my favourite spots on the moor, even today when the weather is brisk and broody.

Another tell-tale of a year of heavy Covid footfall on the hill is how tame the sheep have become – well, not tame exactly – sheep are untamable, but they are intelligent creatures and not above begging scraps from one’s ruck-sack, nor indeed helping themselves, if they think they can get away with it. I’ve had this in the Lakes and the Howgills – the sheep shoving their heads in your sack before you’ve even sat down. Here, the Swaledales, several stout ewes and their lambs, at least have the manners to wait until I am comfortable. Then they approach with stealth, inch by inch, until I am surrounded. I watch them, bemused, unused to seeing them so close up. I have only a thermos of soup which does not interest them, so they settle around almost within petting distance, which is eerie. I suppose they are waiting to see if anything else appears from the sack. It doesn’t. We have a chat, and leave it at that. They were very decent about it, and good company.

Sycamore, Great Hill Farm (ruin), West Pennine Moors

On top, there is no one. It’s cooler here, and the sky, though not exactly breaking, is rippling into interesting textures. Though it’s a grey sort of day, visibility is stunning. Westwards we have a view across the Lancashire plain, down to the sea, from the Mersey to the Ribble, out as far as the wind farm and the gas field. Then, over the Fylde coast we have Blackpool, the Lake district mountains beyond that. North, we have Bowland, Pendle, the Dales. East, and closer to home is Darwen Moor. South, beyond the undulating ridge of Spitlers’ and Redmond’s edge, we have the porcupine back of Winter Hill with its array of transmitters. At just1252 feet above the sea, and like all hills, Great Hill makes a difference in lifting one’s perspective, both internally and externally. We retrace our steps to White Coppice, refreshed.

Back at the cricket field there is more camo, this time accompanied by gun-dogs and green wellies – a mixture of “tactical” and “shooting gentry”, I suppose. I leave the West Pennines to them for the day, and make a “tactical” retreat home. There I soak my feet, and peruse my photographs, see what came out and what did not.

I want to write poetry,
just like in olden times
with a notebook, and a fountain pen,
and a book of common rhymes.

I want to watch the sunset,
across this folded dale,
with a lantern at my elbow,
as the light begins to fail,
and the sash taps out in whispers,
the ciphers of the muse,
dot-dot dash, dot-dot dash,
at the rising of the moon.

And if I pay attention,
yet resist that grasping urge
the pen might yet decipher
an authentic string of words,
a pattern in the ink strokes
on this smooth vanilla page,
a thing we can hold onto
at the fading of the age,
a string of understanding,
timeless and complete,
indelible and indifferent,
to control, and alt-delete.

Clougha Pike, Forest of Bowland, Lancashire

I did not intend inspecting the shooting butts. The path just led away from the estate track, and I was tired of that track. As a way up Clougha Pike, it’s convenient, but probably the least interesting, that’s if you don’t count the impressive engineering and humungous cost that must have gone into laying it. The reason for laying it? Fleets of luxury four by fours, carrying unimaginably wealthy, tweeded gentlemen and their guns, from August 12th onwards.

Anyway, the path led off through the heather, and seemed to be going somewhere. But then it petered out among this line of neatly constructed bunkers. I mean, these were the Rolls-Royce of butts, dressed stone, then covered in turfs and heathers for camouflage. They even had attractively coloured gravel on the floor, so the gentlemen wouldn’t get their brogues and plus fours dirty. Believe me, those grouse wouldn’t know what had hit ’em, and with what style!

We’re in the north of Lancashire today, the Forest of Bowland, one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of England, also formerly one of the most forbidden. I grew up on tales of walkers chancing it up here, their scrapes with the keepers, outwitting the dogs sent after them, and avoiding the natives who sought feathers in their caps for grassing them up to the estate managers. It was all a bit – well – feudal. But then the Countryside and Rights of Way act (2000) opened access to certain parts of it, at least for recreation on foot. Clougha Pike’s in the access area, and so long as they’re not shooting, we’re free to roam here. Come after the glorious 12th though, and you could be disappointed.

Cairns approaching Clougha Pike

I’ve seen no one yet, and it’s been well over an hour. There were a few cars down on the little car-park, so I know there are other hikers about, but the moor has swallowed them. It’s my first time in the hills of this northern part of Bowland, so I’m not sure of the lie of the land, and none of the markers make sense yet. There were some elaborate cairns a while back, enticing us away from the track, but I wasn’t sure if they were just for fancy. The plan was to follow the track until the GPS said we were due east of the summit, then just make a bee-line for it. As for wildlife, the moors seem sterile today. No wild birds, nothing with four legs. There were sheep lower down, and all I’ve seen so far up here are grouse, and piles and piles of their droppings in every nook and cranny.

Bowland doesn’t really do tourists, or rather it kettles them into one or two little places, like Dunsop Bridge, and Slaidburn. You can still picnic along the leafy banks of the Langden Brook, but the land itself caters very little for anyone wanting access to the uplands. It’s rough country, and these are big hills. The signs in the valleys proclaim it to be an area of outstanding natural beauty, and they aren’t wrong, but they feature a Hen Harrier as a logo, which, ironically, along with all the other raptors up here, have a very hard time of it.

Clougha Pike Summit, Bowland, Lancashire

Okay, the summit. A short walk across the heather now and,… well. We have a collection of wind-shelters, informally put together from rocks lying about, and the trig-point. And the stunning view: Fylde Coast, Glasson, Lake District, Yorkshire Dales. There’s a path of sorts too. It follows the line of the ridge, looks like it came from as far over as Ward’s Stone. It’ll take us off I think – and looks more interesting than the way we came up.

What drove those walkers to do it? To trespass, I mean. Was it defiance? I suppose that’s one reason, without getting all political and Kinder Scout about it. The guys I knew were working men, unionized, with industrial jobs, but they didn’t wear their socialism on their lapels. Freedom to roam was more the thing. Not all the hills in Bowland have romantic profiles, but some do, and to any walker with the fire in his blood, a hill is there to be experienced, its summit to be gained. Anyone saying you can’t go up there is like a red rag to a bull.

They had the look of dugouts on the Somme, those butts – I mean Hollywood style, ridiculously tidy, where the killing involves no blood, or dismemberment, or evisceration, and where the shooters carry elaborately decorated arms. Upwards of half a million grouse are farmed and killed every year in places like this. When they’re not shooting birds, these gentlemen are out in Africa killing lions. It’s striking, what the really, really rich have in common, is their love of killing.

With that many grouse shot, you’d think it was a national dish or something, but these unfortunate creatures are essentially live “clays” and shot for fun. Rearing so many has a serious impact on the landscape, indeed it shapes the land. The moors as we see them here, wild, desolate, are entirely unnatural, managed specifically for the rearing of this non-native species, at the expense of native creatures, in particular the raptors who barely get a look in and, though protected in law, tend not to thrive in places like this at all – trapped, shot, poisoned.

On Clougha Pike, Bowland, Lancashire

I wonder what the land would be like, if we just gave it back to nature. How long would it take to transform this managed wilderness into something more diverse? What breathtaking diversity of species would return then? Pine Martin? Wild Cat? Merlin? Hell, even a fox or two would be a start! But that’s not going to happen any time soon, of course. It took a hundred years of campaigning against the money and the privilege, just for the privilege of my sitting where I’m sitting now. The sun will have burned out long before we’re anywhere near re-wilding the Forest of Bowland, or anywhere else in England for that matter. And all the clever men – not the money men – are telling us time is running out.

I think we’ll drive home through the Trough. It’s ages since we did that, and I’ve yet to do it in the little blue car – one of the finest drives I know.

Trough of Bowland, Lancashire

Thanks for listening.

The Brandywine? Ribble Valley, Lancashire

It’s Galadriel who points out the sand martins, nesting in holes in the sandy banks, where the Calder meets the Ribble. The adults are scooping insects up from over the river and delivering them to their young. This is exhilarating for the watcher, but it’s clearly no fun being a bird. Being a bird, she says, is evolution cut to the bone. Only men and elves have evolved the time and the luxury to write poetry. Elven poetry of course is far superior, she adds, and it would be bad form for me to disagree.

There used to be a ferry here, a rowing boat across the Ribble. She tells me it was possibly the inspiration behind the ferry the hobbits used to escape their ghoulish pursuers in the opening trilogy of J R R Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings. It’s also said by those in search of Middle Earth, the confluence of the rivers, the Hodder and the Calder, feeding into the Ribble matches the confluence of the Brandywine, Withywindle and the Shirebourn – the three rivers of Tokien’s mythical Shire. Personally, I think that’s a bit of a stretch, since the Hodder feeds in about a kilometre upstream from here. But okay, let’s say the Ribble Valley might have inspired the work, along with many other parts of the English countryside, but does Lancashire make too much of its place in Tolkien lore? Oh, very much so, she says. But such is life, and the way of celebrity. We agree the man himself would have been nonplussed to have a walk named after him. For a guide to all the landscapes that might have inspired Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Galadriel says to click here.

The Hodder

When I first came this way, it was not called the Tolkien Trail. I’m not sure when that happened. She suspects it was to do with the movie trilogy, and certain enterprising publicans in Hurst Green. As for actual Tolkien scholars, she doubts we’re much on the radar. Tolkien lived in and around Stonyhurst college for a time, when his son was studying for the priesthood. That period coincided with his writing of the Lord of the Rings, which took him from 1937 to 1949. That it only appeared in print in 1955 is suggestive of some of the problems he had with his publishers.

If he was looking for a few hours walk, a quick squint at the map would have yielded a likely route. That’s how I pieced it together, and others before me. Maybe he did the same. It’s impossible to say, but that’s what they call it now: The Tolkien Trail. Weekdays, says Galadriel, one can still enjoy the tranquillity of it, but come weekend, it’s getting hammered, and in places the stress is showing.

Arriving earlier in Hurst Green, we were assailed by notices warning us not to park stupidly. There was plenty of space on the village hall car-park, with its honesty box. But I’m guessing of a weekend you’ll need to come crack of dawn-ish, or not at all.

We had a murky start, with a heavy, moody overcast, and a humid stickiness. By degrees, though, the day freshened, and the trees began to move. The camera was on the last bar of charge, but I had a spare battery, so I wasn’t bothered, until I realized I’d left the battery in the car. By now we were a mile out, and I wasn’t for turning back. I’d have to be sparing with the shots, and anyway, she reminded me, you’ve seen it all before, and the best bits you can’t take pictures of anyway. You just have to feel them.

We skirted the college, came down to the Hodder through Over Hacking wood, then followed the river downstream. The river was low and moving sleepy-slow. From a distance, it has the look of stewed tea, but up close there are attractive shades of green as it reflects the trees. We met a few walkers along the way, exchanged greetings. None noticed Galadriel. Elven folk can be like that – invisible to all but those they allow to see them.

It was mostly tranquil. There was just the one incident where a dog leaped a fence and set an entire meadow of sheep running for their lives, and the man chasing the dog seeming only to make matters worse. Each to their own, she mused, but wondered why people did not adopt small children instead. They’re much less trouble, can be taught to behave without having to tie them to you all the time. Also, the payback is immense. I tell her people are strange creatures and can rarely be fathomed rationally. She agrees.

Just before the Hodder enters the Ribble, we arrive at the busy B6243 and Cromwell’s Bridge, or so called – a romantic ruin spanning the river. It features large on Instagram. There were more warnings here about parking stupidly. I didn’t bother with a photograph. You can’t get a good one anyway without trespassing, and I wanted to save the battery. Here’s one I took earlier.

So then we come to the Ribble, and the sand-martins nesting in its banks, and we watch them for a while. Then she points out this lone fisherman, mid-stream casting his fly into the turbulence where the waters meet. I ask if I should cook up a haiku about him, but she says not to bother. He’s looking strangely at us. Perhaps he doesn’t like the way we’ve come down off the path to get a better view of the sand-martins. The river bank here bristles with the Anglefolk’s proprietary warnings. It’s his loss, she says.

The Winkley Oak

I read Tolkien’s books when I was in my twenties. There’s a lot in them. Indeed, they contain the life scholarship of a very clever man. It’s also where I first met Galadriel. The movies are a significant achievement, given that, for such a long time, the story was considered un-filmable. But, good as they are, they lack the literary depth of the novels, obviously. The novels can sustain several re-readings, and always a fresh discovery at a mythic or an archetypal level.

Tolkien was about so much more than elves and wizards, goblins, and trees that talk. But I guess that’s all he’ll be remembered for. It’s interesting how the Lord of the Rings and its prequel, The Hobbit, enjoyed by so many readers, young and old, have also been banned from conservative Christian homes, and institutions for their “irreligious” themes. Galadriel wrinkles her nose at that one, but agrees the stories touch a nerve at many levels.

We leave the fisherman to it, make our way back to Hurst Green. The path climbs from the river valley, the lower reaches of it washing away now with erosion from a heavy footfall. It will be challenging in the wet, and needs some restoration work. Finally, it’s across a meadow of lazy, sunbathing sheep, to emerge at the back of the Shireburn Arms.

“Fancy a drink?” I ask, though I’m not sure if this is the proper etiquette when dealing with Elven royalty.

She pulls a face. “No, let’s just paste it home, and have a cup of tea in the back garden, shall we?”

Sounds good to me. But of course, long before I’ve hit the M6, I turn to her, a question on my lips, and she’s gone. Elves are like that.

Sea Pink, Lancashire coastal way, Glasson

The plan was to climb Ingleborough. But it’s a popular hill, and we realized at the last minute it was the half-term holiday. We’d be lucky to get near it or, once on it, we’d be trampled underfoot by herds of stampeding three-peakers. So we diverted to the Lancashire coast, and to Glasson. I wasn’t up to a sweaty climb anyway, felt tired after sleeping a bit funny. The little blue car felt jittery, and it had a bouncy clutch.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“It’s not me,” it said. “It’s you. Stop driving like you’re half asleep.”

So, nine a.m., the M6 is running thick and fast, just like in the old days. It’s been decided by a consensus that the pandemic is now over. Except it’s not. I had the second AZ jab last week, so I’m as immune as it gets, at least to the known variants. But there are mutations arising everywhere, and no certainty over how infectious, or dangerous they are, vaccinated or not. The World Health Organisation says we’re just going to have to live with it. But on the bright-side, the forecast is good, so everyone’s bound for Blackpool, or the Lakes. The sun shines, we forget our troubles, and make hay.

We sneak off at Junction 32, Broughton Bridge, and pick up the A6, north, pausing briefly here to drop the top and let some sunshine in. It’s cool to start, but the morning warms as we travel the rural lanes, to the coast at Cockerham. After rather a cold and wet May, the season seems to have come upon us suddenly, the hedgerows bursting with growth and colour, as if making up for lost time. Suddenly, it’s summer.

Glasson Harbour

Ten in the morning, and Glasson Harbour is quiet. It’ll fill up with visitors later, but most go no further than the harbour basin to picnic and catch some sun. We’ll be heading south to the marsh at Cockerham, then back along the coastal way. I’ve done this walk every year since 2014, usually on the last Friday of February, and for no particular reason. But early summer is as fine a time as any to be here. The paths, always heavy with mud, mid-winter, are now dust-dry, and the hedgerows are head high in waving white clouds of cow parsley.

I’ve got the big camera today and a couple of lenses, a wide one and a long one. I’m looking for wide shots of bright meadows, those summer heavy hedgerows, and puffy-cloud skies, as we trace the paths to Cockerham Marsh. Then I want some long ones when we circle back along the coastal way, in particular of the Plover Scar light.

The sheep are out on the marsh, sleepy in the sun, thousands of them, seeking shade or splashing in the tidal creeks. And there’s a profusion of sea pink in the rocks, and along the defences by the abbey. It makes a fine display, and is one of the unexpected highlights of the day.

Thursland Hill

The walk is about seven miles round, so two and a bit hours, and dead flat. The tide is far out, but the air is sea-scented, and heat-shaky, and there are oystercatchers and curlews on the mud-flats. Glasson is sweltering on our return, and bustling. We enjoy coffee and chips at the Lock Keeper’s Rest, before driving home. Top down, summer-scented hedgerows, blue skies and a sense of unhurried motion. It’s why I bought the car. I’m feeling great now, and the car feels super, super normal.

“See,” it says. “I told you it wasn’t me.”

Crook End Farm, Glasson

The M6 southbound is solid, but fast, and we flow with it. Northbound is solid and stationary from Broughton to beyond Leyland, which is my exit. I wonder if everyone is still banking on a day in Blackpool, even as the day slips away to late afternoon. The car ran well, touch wood, still coming up on 95,000. We’re just not getting the same miles in we once did. I’ll wash her off tomorrow. She deserves it, even though she can get a bit grumpy with me when I’m not entirely with it.

The Plover Scar Light, Glasson

Of the photographs I took, the quiet network of paths down to the marsh yielded the best results. They spoke of a balmy English summer, without the cynicism. Those scenes will never look quite the same again, or as fine, as they did today. I’ll use the one looking back to Thursland Hill as background on my laptop. It’ll keep me cosy throughout next winter.

None of the shots of the Plover Scar light really did it justice. I think you need the golden hour for that one. You need a long lens, a tripod to steady it, and the patience to find a leading line, with the tide in the right place to add a mirror for the flaming sky. I can picture it my head, but I’ll leave that one for the locals to pick their evening. I’m sure you’re not stuck for fine sunsets out here.

I don’t know what it was like on Ingleborough. We’ll save that one for later in the year, and an early start, but it couldn’t have been any better than the coast around Glasson.