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In dark and uncertain times, it’s a pleasure to find a book as unremittingly positive, and as (literally) energising as this one. Wim Hof is famous for his feats of extreme endurance, like running up Everest wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, climbing Kilimanjaro in record time, without the normal acclimatisation to avoid altitude sickness, and for sitting encased in ice for periods that would kill a lesser mortal. Not surprisingly, he is also known as the “Ice man”.

Wim Hof claims no special physiology. Medical tests confirm he is not a freak of nature, and he tells us anyone equipped with his methods can achieve the same thing. Moreover, his methods are simple, and they are not “secret”. Any search of the Internet will reveal them. They are based upon his own life experiences, and his researches of ancient eastern techniques. For example, there are stories of Tibetan monks who sit in the freezing cold, and dry out wet cloths upon their backs by the generation of internal heat. It’s a phenomenon that’s been documented, but has left researchers stumped. It’s that sort of thing, Wim has taken on board, honed it to its essentials, demystified it, and applied it to astonishing effect in his own life. While few of us would feel the need to emulate Wim Hofs feats of extreme endurance, the implications for general health and well-being are equally profound.

The method does not require years of seclusion in a Tibetan Monastery. Rather, it involves a daily regime of breathing exercises, followed by exposure to cold water – say a cold shower every morning. The book outlines the exercises, its applications, and some testimonies from satisfied practitioners, but in the main this is Wim Hof’s personal story, and writes like a force of nature, is inspirational, and comes across as infinitely compassionate. He speaks of his early childhood in Holland, and his drop-out culture youth, among communities of squatters. He speaks of adult tragedy, his love of family, and his mission, which is to pass on this same infectious passion for life.

But is he too good to be true? Inevitably, perhaps, many have thought so. Journalists have sought him out with the aim of exposing him, but have ended up becoming converts. His collaboration with various scientific institutions also adds rigour to his claims, and has further silenced cynical naysayers, though his feats still defy conventional wisdom on how the body works, and what it should be capable of.

The difficulty most of us have with any “method”, however, is making the time, or having the motivation, or just the sheer courage, and I for one have yet to take the cold water challenge. That said, my own studies and practice of Qigong lead me to have no trouble endorsing at least the breathing techniques, which seem like an effective précis of the many methods I have encountered over the years.

The aim of breath work, like this, is to dramatically increase the oxygen content of the blood. Breath is, literally, the stuff of life, it is oxygen, it is the Qi of the Chinese, the Prana of the Hindu, but the western lifestyle means we are often living under stress, which interferes with the breath, restricts it, which results in a permanent state of hypoxia, and a resulting chemical imbalance, which leads to inflammation, to immuno-deficiency, and to all manner of sickness. We gradually acidify. Attention to the breath redresses the balance, boosting oxygen intake, and gradually resetting the dial so to speak. Reading this book has reinforced the answers to the questions my own practice of Qigong posed over the years.

Whilst at pains to provide a rigorous backing for its claims, there is an undoubted hippy, new age vibe to the narrative, and Wim’s language is never far away from the mystical – at least in a secular, new age kind of way. Some readers may find this off-putting, but this is not written as a sterile medical textbook, it is the document of a man’s life, his achievements and his passions, told in his own words, which makes his story all the more readable, and I warmed to it at once.

Wim Hoff: I’ll tell you what I do. I follow my inner voice and listen to what it tells me. I trust my soul sense and let it guide me. I ignore, as best as I can my ego. I know it’s going to be cold in the morning and that those first few seconds in the cold water are going to be unpleasant because my ego tells me so. But my inner voice tells me to bloody get into that cold water,…

We’ve all heard that voice. For now mine’s not urging me under a cold shower in the mornings, though with electricity currently at nearly 30p per Kilowatt hour, I can see the benefits to my pocket, if not also my health. It once happened by accident, a guest house shower suddenly running ice-cold, and the shock of that was so great I gasped for breath, staggered out, and nearly fainted. Wim does suggest, therefore, you go easy on yourself to begin with.

Altogether, a very engaging and informative read. I gained such a lot of knowledge from it, answering questions I’ve had for a long time about breath-work, and it effects on physiology. And yes, I’m sure a cold shower would wake me up in more ways than one, but at the risk of sounding cosseted, I’m happy to take it one day at a time.

The funeral of a neighbour brings me to the old church of St Michael’s and All Angels. It looks like the whole village has turned out. He was a well known character, much loved. It’s a hot day and I feel stupid for having brought a hat, this being to spare my bald pate under the fierce sun. But, apart from in gangster movies, is it ever acceptable for a man to wear a hat to a funeral? I had to walk there, so needed a hat, but then what does one do with it when one gets there? Maybe it is acceptable, but no one else had one, and I felt self-conscious twiddling with it throughout the proceedings. Strange, this self consciousness. You’d think I would be old enough now to disregard it. But enough about the hat.

We sang Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer, and Abide with me, read psalm 23, then the graveside thing. It was the full Anglican, so to speak. Then I walked home, in my hat, feeling overdressed. I spoke last time of religious observance being rejected in the west, and the church communities dwindling, yet, when it comes to the great events of life, we still like the church thing. We blow the dust off our childhood, and enter once more the ancient places, summon the priestly, and know roughly what to say in the right, and sometimes also the wrong places.

I’ve not worn a suit for years. It felt strange, strange also seeing so many faces I am familiar with in more casual garb, and all of us looking today, I suppose, like city-slickers. I also had to think about how you tie a tie. Afterwards, I sat out in the garden with tea. My neighbour was very old, and had lived an active life, until Covid, and lock-downs, which seemed to send him into a decline. Final departures are always poignant, but we do not live forever. He was given a good send off, will be long remembered, and by many.

One is always thoughtful after a funeral. There is a tenderness about them, a sadness of course, but it’s also an occasion to see old faces, and catch up. And laughter is never far away as stories are swapped in the mood of fond remembrance. But being myself not a naturally sociable soul, I mean beyond my immediate family, I find myself wondering who would turn up to mine. Certainly not the whole village. Then again, I don’t suppose it’s a problem that will concern me much, when the time comes.

Anyway, all this quiet reflection is arrested by my neighbour on the other side who plays rock music to the birds, and gets out his thundering tractor mower. Life goes on, of course. But must it always be so damned tasteless and ill-timed? Ah, but just listen to me. (apologies to rock music lovers)

Anyway, it’s a beautiful June day, the garden is coming on. My good lady’s tomatoes are showing flower, and she’ll be pleased about that, as she’s been nurturing them like babies since they were but tiny seeds. Then, perhaps in defiance of the inappropriate rock music, I find myself thinking of an earworm of an old song, one I once attempted to translate from the French, as part of my half century of attempts to learn the language. Languages are not my forte, but I should like to one day order lunch in French, in France, without the waiter laughing. Not all ambitions need be great to be satisfying in their pursuit. It goes something like this:

The sea, we see dancing,
Along the clear bays,
With silvery reflections.
The sea, reflections change,
Under the rain.
The sea, which the summer sky
Makes of these white breakers, like sheep,
The purest of angels.
The sea, an azure shepherdess,
Infinite.

Look, near the pools,
These tall wet reeds.
Look, these white birds,
And these rust-coloured houses.
The sea, it cradles them all,
Along the clear bays,
And a love song,
The sea, it cradles my heart for all time.

This, of course, being my own somewhat poetically loose interpretation of Charles Trenet’s 40s classic, La Mer. That’s a beautiful image, “the sea, we see dancing”, and even if you don’t understand the French, you cannot help but feel the sun coming out as it is sung. All of which seems somehow appropriate on this glorious afternoon, and a sweet segue from contemplation of the funereal, back into the light of life.

Thanks for listening

Midsummer from the Pike

My thanks to fellow blogger Ashley, for his evocative Haiku this morning, and from which I stole the title of this blog. My thanks also for inspiring me to get out up a hill this evening, Ashley, and what a golden evening it was. It is of course mid-summer, and the longest day. As I write, the sun has now set, so, in a way, I suppose we have made the summit and already taken the first of those hesitant steps back down. I say hesitant, because the summit is so beautiful, and the air so balmy, and the sky so blue, and nights like this are few.

My nearest hill of any note is Rivington Pike, so that’s where I headed. Early evening and the Hall Avenue was almost as full as it might have been on a busy weekend, so a lot of people had the same idea. Mid-summer clearly means something to us, as a population, as a people, though we may not know exactly what it is. Yet, still, it draws us out. We speak of energy, of peace, of beauty, of dreams, even – dare I say – of the Faerie. To be sure, June nights are often the gentlest, and have about them an air of magic.

Rivington Pike

I made the top of the Pike by around 8:00 pm, still nearly two hours from the sunset. The Pike was filling up, but in a quiet sort of way. There were couples, families, a trio of young women in spandex with new agey trinkets and Yoga mats, and a couple of strapping lads with little pug dogs. All were settling down to see the sun out. There was an air of festival, and – it has to be said – a smell of weed. Druids and other modern pagan groups would be celebrating at Stonehenge, also at Glastonbury Tor. In my neck of the woods, we have the Pike.

As traditional Christian religious observance falls away, there is a tendency to assume we westerners are losing our religion, but all we are really losing is our dogma. People cannot help but be spiritual, for to be moved by a sunset is a spiritual thing. To make an effort to catch a sunset at a turning point of the year, this is a spontaneous religious observance, one for which no church bell needs to toll.

That said, I didn’t actually wait for the sunset, but just rested a while, rested in the subtle energy of those also quietly gathered. It reminded me of something from my childhood and put me in a loving frame of mind, I suppose. All my fellows were my brothers and sisters this evening. I took a few shots with the camera, but felt self-conscious. The DSLR is a noisy thing – one of its downsides. Everyone else was happy with the quiet little cameras on their ‘droids and iPhones. So then I came away, descended the leafy terraced gardens, beneath the Pike, all of which were by now illumined by the golden hour.

Leverhulme’s terraced gardens

There’s probably a wild party going on up there now, with the young ones, and if there is, then good on you, kids! That’s it with the hill of summer, once you make the summit, you feel mellow. I recall, in the I Ching, or Book of Changes, Hexagram 20 speaks of a tower, raised on a hill. It’s a place of contemplation, where we rest from a point of vantage, and survey the paths we’ve taken on our journey, also the paths that lead on from here. The energy of the sun has peaked, raised us up. So now what?

Well, to think of the nights drawing in, the days shortening, autumn and winter approaching, is perhaps to jump the gun a bit. We have the rich splendour of the ripening seasons still to come, when our labours shall bear fruit, or so one hopes. It depends on what one has sown, thus far. And of course, we don’t have to wait so long for the golden hour of light, that precedes the sunset.

Anyway, I retire now, with the clock pressing for midnight, wishing you all good night, and I hope to dream of the Tuatha de Danaan. That’s the other thing about the solstice – that air of the faery and Titatnia, about it.

What’s that? You don’t believe in the Faery? Of course you do. You’re just afraid to admit it.

Thanks for listening.

A stinging thing, these waspish thoughts,
They built the castles, and dug the moats.
We churn them round, we thrust them out,
Those waspish thoughts, without a doubt,
They fell the mountains, burn the earth,
Stunt the spirit, and still the birth.


If only all could go our way,
Those waspish thoughts, to win the day,
Then they, who’d dare to do us down,
Would fall into our moat and drown.
Or so we’d think, but so it goes,
With never a day without some cause,
Some hook on which to puff our pride,
To dig our moat so deep, so wide.


We stand there thus, our pride to sing,
‘Mid clouds of wasps, to buzz and sting
When should we not, to be our best,
Heal first our selves, and forget the rest?

On Darwen Moor

Darwen Tower

You can see Darwen tower from a long way off, and from various directions, all over Lancashire. Built in 1898, it’s been under repair for some time now, embedded in an exoskeleton of scaffolding. It was also wrapped in pale green polythene to prevent the workmen from freezing to death, in such an exposed spot, and this also made it even easier to pick out from the most improbable of distances. I noticed recently, though, the scaffolding had come down, so decided to head over for a walk, and to get some shots of the renovated structure.

I was thinking I might also be able to coax myself up it, though the very top of the tower can make my legs wobble. It commemorates two notable events, one being the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Vic, the other being the opening of the moors to the public after a series of successful mass trespasses that wrestled them from the grip of local toffs. But whatever the reason, Darwen is proud of its tower, and rightly so. In these straightened times, it’s good to see it being looked after.

A friend and I once drank a toast from the top, in birthday remembrance of a friend who was recently departed. That was mid-winter, with gale force winds and pouring rain. We could not even see the bottom of the tower, and it felt like being in the basket of a hot air balloon in the middle of a cloud. We used delicate, diamond cut glasses, and sherry poured from a pewter hip-flask, though the alcohol was considerably diluted, I recall, by the rain dripping off my hat.

By contrast, today is a warm, about nineteen degrees, while a high of twenty-two is forecast, for later on, with humidity off the dial. In other words, it’s one of those muggy days that raises a sweat. A poor night’s sleep has also left nothing in the legs, though I recall I’ve used this excuse before. Starting from the Royal at Tockholes, we tread a familiar route, through the farmyard at Ryal Fold, then across meadows, and down into the sylvan ravine of Sunnyhurst woods. Here, a pack of feral school children are raising a din while tearing branches from the trees to beat each other with. I was thinking of settling here for lunch, but decide not to linger, now, and head on up through the Lynch Gate. Then it’s by the Sunnyhurst pub, and on to the more tranquil environs of the moor.

Ornamental falls, Sunnyhurst Woods

I note the Guardian newspaper this morning reports the flight intended to offshore seven asylum seekers to Rwanda, at a reported cost of £550K, has been torpedoed by a last minute appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The Daily Mail is furious, and demands to know the name of the judge who has dared hold the UK to the letter of the law, this I presume, so they could be beasted on social media. On whose authority the Daily Mail acts, I have to wonder. As I understand it, the UK is not only a signatory to the ECHR, it is one of its architects, this being in 1959, and a possibly more enlightened age. I find all this unsettling, this denigrating of the laws, and the law-keepers. One cannot help but sense a dark cloud passing over the sun, chilling the earth.

As we mount the path to the tower, clouds of flies roar from piles of horse-shit, and mountain bikers careen downhill, doing a hundred miles an hour. Mid-June on the moors sees the foamy white blossom of heath bedstraw, wrestling with the shiny green of wimberry. Then we have the broad brush-strokes of cotton grass, bobbing about against the yellow ocre, and the russet of the moor. There are still buttercups, but also the more delicate yellow petalled tormentil – used in herbal preparations – and as with all such things I wonder how the ancient apothecaries worked its properties out, and who was the first to try it.

Approaching the tower, we discover it’s actually still a building site, ringed by fencing, so we are unable to climb it. I think I am relieved. As for photographing, we have to choose our angles carefully to minimise the remaining ugliness. But I have to say the tower itself is looking very handsome indeed, with all its fresh pointing.

It feels odd, this time of year, approaching midsummer, now, and the longest day, when the summer seems hardly to have begun. Slowly, the days will shorten. Then we must make hay while the sun shines, and the clock ticks down once more to winter gales, and dark at five.

In America, they are calling witnesses in the hearing over that terrible January 6th insurrection. It seems clear there was great wrong doing in high places, yet already a feeling said wrong-doers, even if found guilty, will avoid punishment, and might indeed be left to try their hand at insurrection again. There is a sense of the meek, and the law-abiding being powerless in the face of something clever, but darkly ruthless. And then there is another school shooting, and seemingly nothing to be done about that either.

Darwen moor is beautiful this afternoon, the cotton grass running up the low rise of Cartridge hill, picking out the contours and the hollows in between, adding shape to the landscape as a painter brushes in highlights. There is a slight haze, but plenty of fair weather clouds sailing like galleons in formation, their sails full of a billowing jolliness. There are curiously few birds. I see larks, but they are keeping their heads low, and there is no rapture about them, as if the mugginess has put the same lead in their wings and as it has put in my legs.

On Darwen Moor

There are notices about heath fires. The moor is very dry, now, and I note the rushes in even the worst of the bogs are showing pale brown, and look brittle, like they are dying back for want of a drink. The paths are dusty, the moor is wide open, and hot, but mercifully less humid at altitude. We come to the little oasis of Lyon’s Den, a green fold in the upper reaches of Stepback brook – cool shade from trees planted around the ancient dwelling, which is now just a pile of mossy stones, while the trees live on. Here, we try some shots against a dynamic sky, and wonder about the small lives that were passed here. We imagine ourselves born into those same times, and wonder what we would have been, what we would have made of ourselves, if there would have been the same pathways out of humble beginnings.

And then we’re back at the car, ready for coffee, and a rest from the heat. We click the radio on to hear the government’s ethics advisor has resigned, after coming under pressure to approve of something unethical and, in his words, “odious”. There is some doubt if he will be replaced. In the history of our islands, all of this strikes me as a very grave state of affairs. We turn the radio off, dislike its company these days, and drive home. Mid-June on the moors. They have the most colour, I think, and the cotton grass is especially beautiful just now.

Hot metal

In Martindale

Scene: An Engineering Industry Training Board Approved Training School, Bolton, some time in the late 1970’s. Scent of cutting oils, and hot metal. Syncopated, rhythmic sound of rotating machinery.

Characters: an occasionally fiery fitting instructor, smelling of pipe tobacco and Johnsons Baby powder, and a reticent seventeen-year-old me.

Action: Mr Mooney is attempting to weld two pieces of steel. I am passing and notice something.

Me, urgently: “Em, Mr Mooney?”

Mr Mooney, dismissive: “Not now, lad, I’m busy.”

Me, more urgently: “But,… Mr Mooney,… Mr Mooney,…”

Mr Mooney, exasperated: “F#ck’s sake, lad, what is it?”

“Your overall’s on fire.”

“What? Oh,…”

Mr Mooney dances, and flaps his arms.

God bless him, Mr Mooney. Skilled as he was in that old-school kind of way, he was never to be trusted around an oxy-acetylene torch. But other than charred overalls, no harm was done, and – albeit indirectly – he taught me much, though not always about Engineering. The Engineering Industry Training Board was a national body that oversaw a year of basic workshop practice for school-leavers – all budding engineers and craftsmen. It’s gone now, and I’ve no idea how the youngsters pick these skills up, though the latter years of my career suggested they were no longer de rigueur for the self-respecting professional who was more likely to be seen plugged into a laptop, attending a virtual meeting, while on the way to another meeting. But if you’ve off-shored your manufacturing, then fair enough, you don’t need what are euphemistically called “vocational skills” any more. Or do you? Well, trying to get my car welded up recently reminds me such skills are indeed still needed, and growing scarce on account of there being no more Mr Mooneys. Of course Mr Mooney would not have been my first choice of welder, for my car, but you know what I mean.

I’ve not spoken about the little blue car for a while. I sense few people are interested in cars, and driving these days. But it’s also partly guilt, I suppose. Cars aren’t a good look when we’re on the cusp of a climate catastrophe, though I would argue my ambitions to keep the old girl going are a valuable offset of the carbon that went in to her manufacture. Also, she takes up a fraction of the room, and the fuel, of an SUV.

Covid has shaken up the makers of microprocessors, which has disrupted deliveries of new cars, which, in tandem with current pressing levels of inflation, has lifted the prices of used cars to improbable levels. So it makes sense to hang on to what you’ve got, and get it fixed when it’s ailing, rather than trading when you get bored with it, unless what you’ve got is a lemon, and we’ve all had one of those. And that’s not an easy call to make.

My little blue car, a 20 year old Mazda MX5, bought second, has turned out to be the cheapest, yet also the best car I’ve ever owned. It’s certainly been no lemon, but they’re prone to rust, especially around the rear sills, and the back wings, and mine’s been needing tidying for a while. A local mechanic was able to make a functional repair of the sills, for MOT purposes, but he admitted anything of a more aesthetic and restorative nature to the bodywork was not really his forte. Unfortunately, he couldn’t name anyone else with the skills who could help. They’ve all gone from round here, he said.

I found an accident repair shop some distance away, and they sounded keen, but then not so keen when they realised welding was what I wanted. Welding like that, they said – meaning fabrication welding – was rare. Most guys doing it had either retired, or gone home, post Brexit.

Go see “So and So”, they suggested. So off I went, even further away, but when I got there the unit he operated from was closed for demolition. So I found another guy, further out, one who restores, among other things, vintage cars, and he said he’d have a go, and lucky I’d called in when I did because he was moving out to somewhere else, even further away.

I’m a little old to be pootling round in an open-top roadster, but there’s much more to the MX5 than meets the eye. If you’re not a motorist, and if you didn’t grow up with cars, you perhaps won’t know what I mean. But cars have a feel to them. They either fit us, or we make do, and mostly we make do because it’s rare to find a car that’s had the time spent on its design, so it’s made to fit how a car’s supposed to fit, and feel when it’s on the road.

I’ve had the little blue car eight years now, longer than I’ve kept any car. I like to walk, but unless I’ve driven out to the start of the walk in the Mazda, the day is not the same. That’s hard to explain, and probably absurd, but it extends the day. You get the walk, but you also get the drive in to a beautiful area, and to top the day off you get the drive back out again. With the top down, you feel the world around you. You smell the air, you hear the birds, and the wind in the trees. There’s talk of this marque becoming a classic, but then they say that about all the old cars. Bottom line, she’s not worth much, but in these strange times, worth keeping going all the same.

So the guy had a good look around her, pronounced her not as bad as I’d feared, explained the repair, the cuts, the welds, the fabrications he’d have to make, the way he’d have to fill certain areas with weld, dress it all back, re-spray, blend,… make it like new. Time he said. It was mostly time and attention to detail. It would cost an arm and a leg, but I was ready for that, and the guy had no scorch marks on his overalls, which further suggested he knew one end of a welding torch from the other. We shook on the deal, which felt odd – the first hand I’ve shaken since the pandemic began. He had gloves on, so I was no risk to him, and I didn’t mind a bit of workshop dirt on my palm. It put me in mind of former times, of Mr Mooney, and the scent of hot metal,…

Thanks for listening.

Dean Black Brook, White Coppice, Lancashire

The cold seems to have been hanging on this first week in June, the house struggling to warm, most days never breaking eighteen degrees. The boiler lies dormant. Jumpers and jackets suffice for comfort and, of an evening, only essential lamps are lit. Appliances are scrutinised for kilowatts, and used as necessary but with circumspection. I don’t know if such economies are futile, but we make them anyway. And as I gaze out along the street, none of my neighbours are lit up either, so I guess I’m not the only one feeling a way through these strange times.

Meanwhile, malodorous smoke drifts, chugging out from the chimneys of those with wood-burners. These were purchased no doubt, for fancy, when they were of a fashion, but are now pressed into the more serious production of free heat – this, I suspect, from the burning of old pallets, and window frames. All of which is to the chagrin of those with hung out washing, and to me, whose sinuses swell at the merest whiff. Reluctantly, I take an anti-histamine.

For such a tiny pill, the anti-histamine packs a mighty punch, and I never could handle them. It does nothing for the sinuses, but puts me in a muddle all the next day long, and takes my legs. We’ll say that’s what it is anyway, as we feel the path bite. We’re in White Coppice, a little late in the day, so it was a struggle to park. I think some schools are still on Half Term – so hard to judge them these days. The plan is to wander up the ravine of Dean Black Brook, breaking out towards its head to Great Hill, but I find I’m overdressed for the day, which warms suddenly, and my legs are – well – leaden.

It’s becoming quite a sporting route, this, the path eroding, and dangerous in places as it slides away to a long and exposed drop. Or it may just be my age, and it’s always been this way. As an approach to Great Hill, it’s a more intimate route than the more popular path by Drinkwaters with its wide moorland vistas.

There are little cascades along the way, some accessible, some not, as the path sweeps up and down. At the first of these, I rest a bit, pull off the jacket before I boil, and settle down to take a photograph. It’s a cheat, I suppose, but even a modest runnel of water like this can be made to appear dramatic, from the right angle, and with a bit of cropping. Thus, I fuss over dozens of shots, thinking at least one is likely to come out all right. I’m packing up and turn to recover the path, only to be startled by a pair of Amazons coming at me like they mean business. That’s it with running water, you don’t hear the approach of others.

They have stepped out of an Instagram shoot, these girls. They are – what do you call them? – influencers, or perhaps more likely influenced. Tall, both of them, blonde and shapely, in their twenties, hair tied up in identical ways, like twin sisters. They wear identical gear: very short shorts, tight tee-shirts, little back-packs bouncing in the smalls of their backs, and running shoes. They are moving fast, and have looks of grim determination about them.

The lead girl is bold, and sure of foot, heedless of the sometimes sporting nature of the path. The girl who follows is more hesitant. She is the one I would have most in common with, I think. I never had much time for bold leader-types, nor they for me. I feel almost bowled aside by them, but they do not seem to notice me.

I venture a polite hello. The lead girl ignores it, or does not hear it. The girl who follows makes a belated, surprised response, as if indeed they had not noticed me. With a fragrant waft of body-spray, they are gone, up the side of the ravine, climbing like mountain goats. I see only legs, and sky. I reassure myself I would have outpaced them once, but not today. Today, I flake out at every opportunity, and fiddle with the camera.

We fiddle with it some more, at every insignificant sparkle of the brook along the way. Our progress is slow and halting, the day of a sudden somehow jaded. We take pictures of the more unfamiliar flora to identify later (heath bedstraw), and note the fresh green ferns now sprouting, marking their assertive dominance. In a few weeks they will be tall and wavy, and the valley will be pungent with them, and the air caught in their fronds will be thick with the drone of flies.

I see the crown of Great Hill ahead, and the sycamores by the ruin of Great Hill Farm. The Amazons are already two jogging dots of white against the heat wobbled green of the moor. They were indeed beautiful girls, but they struck me as cold, and that’s always something of a paradox, as I always imagine beauty to be warm. Bodies to die for, of course, and which would lure even the most nervous would-be lover from his mother’s apron, but they possessed not a smile between them. I don’t know why that struck me. Perhaps it was just the day and the muddlement, caused by the anti-histamine. It would need a poem to explore it.

We leave Black Dean Brook by the kissing gate that brings us up to the ruin of Drinkwaters, and there we sit in the shade of trees, enjoying a cooling breeze. Even the sheep are reluctant to relinquish their shade, now, and keep us company. A few lines of a poem by Betjeman comes unbidden:

Fair tigress of the tennis courts,
So short in sleeve and strong in shorts,
Little, alas, to you I mean,
For I am bald and old and green,..

And while I thank the unconscious pixie for its wry humour – which does indeed raise a smile – I know that’s not it, and it knows I know, but challenges me to mull it over and come back with a more serious answer to the question the day poses. So then it’s down to White Coppice in weary defeat, Great Hill seeming an Everest of effort, and quite beyond us, nothing in the legs, and this haunting sense of Beauty having turned its back.

At home, we sit out with coffee, and watch the sunset. The day is cooling again, and needs a sweater for comfort. Then the village stokes its wood-burners for the evening, and we withdraw to the cleaner air indoors, to dream, not of Amazons, but of sparkling rills along the Dean Black Brook.

And we attempt our reply, not as erudite or as witty as Betjeman:

Awakening to loss, we mourn the day’s swift run,
Seeking shallow waters, so to play,
Mistaking splash and haste for meaning,
And with foolish swings,
Scythe then our harvest home,
Thin as air, wholesome as the dust,
Of windblown clay.
Only in the lingering pause of beauty,
Do the depths reveal,
And then, smiling, lead the way.

The forecast says the days will turn warmer. I welcome that.

Thanks for listening.

Photo by David Jakab on Pexels.com

Over this last long weekend of the Platinum Jubilee, there has been much pomp and spectacle. The British do pomp and spectacle rather well, with much spit and polishing of breastplates. Then there’s all that far-eastern manufactured bunting, to say nothing of the screaming of the Queen’s guards. As for press coverage, it has been varied, swinging from the swooning deference of The Daily Telegraph, who reminds us: “Why the British still cherish their public service monarchy” to the Guardian newspaper’s more nuanced lamentation that: “This jubilee has been a kind of soft-focus funeral for an era”.

As for the international perspective, The New York Times describes it, somewhat more pragmatically as: “The party before the Hangover,” and that the: “Queen’s Jubilee offers Britons respite from their woes”, these woes, we presume, being rampant stagflation, food shortages, the unaffordability of energy, housing, fuel, and the BA2 Covid variant. I also liked the Irish Times’ irreverent take, voiced some time ago, that: “It’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.

Taken from the broader perspective then, the British present an eccentric image, one that is admired, loathed, or seems merely ridiculous. Are we objects of pity, on the world’s stage, or deserving of our cum-uppance? Is the monarchy a stabilising force in these troubled times, or mere bread and circuses? Opinion divides. Certainly it seems odd to our international friends that whilst Britain, in common with all post-imperial powers, has been declining in wealth and influence, it should appear so averse to grasping the nettle of its own future, and instead seems prone to sentimentally idolising its past.

What the Daily Telegraph does not tell us is that it’s mostly old people who see the monarchy as still relevant to British life, while most young people don’t. This is understandable, since, for the old, most of their lives lie in the past. The young, however, have most of their lives ahead of them, and are more concerned about whether their country is a place where they can raise happy children, find fulfilling work for fair pay, and where they can live with open minds and hearts. Does the monarchy feature at all large in these respects? The data suggests the young have concluded it does not.

While the faithful waved their Union Jacks this past weekend, the former leader of the Labour Party – who could hardly be mistaken for a Royalist – reminded us of the distribution of foodbanks across the entire UK. There are rather a lot of them. Worse, they have become a normal and accepted part of our way of life, as have crippling working hours, the dismantling of the welfare state, and the seemingly wanton destruction of the health services. The justification for being proud of Britain, as it is today – a place to live, work and grow – is a flimsy one, unless you have sufficient wealth to cushion you, in which case justifications are best avoided.

But the redistributive politics of the left are not coming back. It may be the other side is just too strong in these days of late capital, and the nation’s media will dutifully demonise any even moderately left leaning voices. Or it may be the British are genetically incapable of valuing labour, even when they are the ones providing it, and will always swing towards deference at the voting box.

That said, the current Conservative government is growing in unpopularity, even among those who represent it, let alone those who voted for it. Even before the limp jubilee bunting has been taken down, there was launched a night of the long knives, and a possible leadership challenge. The pundits will no doubt enjoy this unwholesome spectacle, as it unfolds over the coming weeks. But whoever is to be the true-blue, Jack waving incumbent of number 10, they will have a difficult job winning back public trust, this side of a general election. Then again I doubt a Labour, or even a Labour led coalition will significantly alter any of the privations of modern Britain, which seem now so institutionally, and culturally embedded, it will require the work of generations to merely fill the potholes, let alone build fresh inroads to another place entirely.

But what has all this to with the British Monarchy? Well, nothing. Since it is not obvious their role is to ameliorate the excesses of their own kind, one has no expectation they will ever do so, no matter how much they are adored by those so impoverished by those same excesses. Perhaps, like actors in the grand myth of the decline of nations down the ages, they merely take their places, as do we, and all of us are powerless to divert the narrative from its nihilistic conclusion.

Thus, we line the mall at every opportunity. We wave our flags, and we tune in to the BBC’s breathless coverage. It is a very British aberration, then, one to be cherished or avoided, according to taste and demographic. Whether the Royals be wholesome fayre, or mere bubblegum, is very much a vexed issue, the discussion of which perhaps distracts from other, more pressing matters of State. But if it’s true what they say, and the myth must be acted out to its inevitable conclusion, then the British must accept their fate, in which case idolising the past is the very best we can do, if it takes our minds off the increasingly obvious and unfortunate fact, the past is all we have going for us.

It was Bert Grundy who took the call. It was the morning of the day before his retirement from the laboratory, and he’d been hoping for a quiet one. As one of the few who still knew his way around the Imperial Archives, at the National Standards Institute, he wasn’t kept terribly busy these days. There was just the occasional VIP tour they still held for crusty old Empire types, when he’d be wheeled out to share some of his knowledge on largely obsolete matters, to nods of dewy-eyed approval. But mostly he was allowed to tinker away at his own research, which involved measurements at decimals of a millimetre, using lasers. He’d been busy in his allotment the night before, so had missed the latest government announcement that millimetres were to be phased out, and those old Imperial units of measurement, more familiar to those crusty Empire types, were in fact to be brought back as the next big thing.

“Grundy, get down to the basement and dig out the foot, will you?”

“The foot, Director?”

“Yes, the bloody foot. Go check on it, will you. I’ve a feeling we’ll be needing it again.”

The director sounded irritable. Bert had known him a long time and the two of them generally got on, not withstanding their differences in rank. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would still be interested in seeing the actual, historical foot, but that was by the by. It also puzzled him how ignorant the director was of the protocols. You didn’t just go down and check on the foot. First you went onto the secure server and looked up the combination of the safe where the ledgers were kept. Then you stirred the dusty security man from his slumbers to admit you to the ledger room. And from the actual paper ledgers you looked up the combination of the lock of the vault, where the precious foot itself was kept. The entire business could take an hour of his time.

Duly armed with the combination, Bert rode the lift down to the deep basement, where the vaults lay in hermetic isolation. More dusty security men had to be negotiated. He’d not been down there for years, and the cutbacks were beginning to show in the cobwebs hanging from the ceilings, and the flickering of yellowing strip lights.

The vaults themselves were airtight to prevent degradation of their artefactual curiosities. It had been discovered, in the nineteenth century, for instance, the actual foot was shrinking. This was a little known fact, indeed, top secret, that the physical foot of today, was not the foot of a century ago. Neither was the pound, nor the ounce for that matter, though many thought they were, or rather, on reflection, Bert lamented how nobody thought very much about these things at all, actually.

It was with an air of anticipation then that Bert donned his special, sterile coveralls, and face mask, punched in the code and entered the air-lock. Not many people had gazed upon the genuine foot, at least not in recent decades. Bert himself had only seen it once, and that was some time back in the later nineteen seventies, when he was an apprentice, and wide-eyed with wonder. Now, with a faint hiss the pressures were equalised, and Bert entered the inner sanctum of all things forgotten.

There wasn’t just the foot down here, of course. There was the bucket for measuring the official Imperial gallon – arrived at by years of study, and discussion, and, like the actual foot, of purely historical interest now, since the adoption of the international system, but it was considered worth preserving anyway. There was even the apparatus, used in the eighteenth century, by Sir Arthur Boddington-Spottiswode, in support of his somewhat convoluted argument for the Empire adopting the official units of speed as furlongs per fortnight. And thank God, that hadn’t worked out! Old Spottiswode was a crackpot, of course, but influential in his day. Then there was lots and lots of other stuff, things even Bert hadn’t the vaguest idea about, and which lay forgotten by the nation, but was still of antiquarian interest for anyone sufficiently motivated to root it out.

And there it was, the cupboard, where they kept the foot, the actual foot, against which all other feet were measured. But, opening the cupboard, it was then Bert discovered, there was a problem,…

The director was ominously quiet while Bert explained his findings, and then he exploded. “What do you mean, it’s not there?”

“Well,… the ticket says it’s out for inspection,” said Bert. “Bernard Stringer withdrew it for checks. You remember old Stringer?”

The director did not, and wasn’t interested anyway. “Just get it back off him, will you? I want that foot on my desk before you go home.”

Easier said than done, explained Bert. Old Stringer had been let go in the nineties, as part of a cost-cutting drive, and was most likely dead by now – after all, there was no point in him keeping on checking the size of things that were considered obsolete, so they’d let him go. The bit of the lab he’d worked in had been refurbished several times since, and it was likely the foot had got caught up in all the confusion, and chucked out by some dozy contractor as a piece of scrap, along with the rest of old Stringer’s kit.

As a matter of interest, while he was down there, Bert had also checked on the pound and the ounce, and found they too were out on loan to Stringer, but he kept this particular news to himself. He still intended retiring tomorrow and, for now, all the director needed to know about was the foot. And the foot was missing.

The director wasn’t comforted by Bert’s argument that, from a technical point of view at least, it didn’t matter. All that had been lost was an historical artefact – embarrassing though that was – while the actual measurement of the foot, should anyone be of a mind to determine its nominals again, was secure by reference to the international units of measurement, and the conversion factors. And while the director knew that was perfectly true, he also knew he would have a hard time persuading the PM. Unknown to Bert, there were more things at stake here than could be measured by a ruler. The PM wanted The Foot, and only the genuine foot would do.

Sure enough, when the director put in the call to Downing Street, the PM was similarly incandescent. “What do you mean, you’ve lost the effing foot?”

“Well, PM, I’m sure it’s not lost exactly. We’re having a root around for it. It’s probably still about somewhere,… em.” However, the director wasn’t hopeful, and privately shared Bert’s view the glorious, Imperial foot was indeed gone forever. “But you see, PM, we know the foot is precisely 0.3048 of a meter. So for all practical purposes, the foot, as a unit of measurement, is imperishable, I mean in the abstract sense of things. As for the actual physical foot, in the archives, well, that varied from day to day, depending on how accurately you measured it, and indeed who was doing the measurement,… while, as regards the meter,…” But he was waffling, and worse, he was being technical, and the PM was having none of it.

“No, no, no. That won’t do at all. Listen, we’re not making any further reference to those damned Johnny Foreigner measures. No more meters, or sub twiddly bits thereof, d’you understand? We’ve taken back control. We are a Sovereign Nation, and shall exercise our right to exceptionality in all matters, be that feet and inches, or pounds and ounces. And to that end, I want the actual effing true blue British foot, so I can present it to the public at my next news conference. Do I make myself clear?”

Bert was putting his coat on at the day’s end, thinking he’d got away with any further involvement in the case of the missing foot, when the phone rang again. “I’m sorry, Director? Did you say fake it?”

“No, I said make it. Can’t you just make another foot? Though, technically that would be faking it, I suppose. But it’s only a lump of metal, after all. No one will know the difference. I’m sure we can get the original drawings off the Internet or something, so we know roughly what it looks like. We’d have to keep it hushed up, of course, but since I’m sure you value your pension, I presume I can rely on your discretion.”

“It’s really not as simple as that, Director. The problem isn’t so much what it looks like, but how big shall we make it? – if we can’t refer to the international standards – I mean the meter – and when the actual – you know – the actual foot itself is missing, how do we measure a foot?”

The Director sighed. Bert was a good man, but like all his kind, he was infuriatingly rational, and wilfully ignorant of the bigger picture, to say nothing of the real forces that shaped the world. “We can’t refer to the meter, Bert. It’s been impressed on me, in no uncertain terms, that’s completely out of the question. The meter is to be persona non grata. A matter of national importance, and all that. We have to find another way. A way that’s more,… I don’t know,… patriotic, let’s say.”

“Well,…” said Bert, thinking hard, but hoping he couldn’t come up with anything, because all he wanted to do was go home and check on his allotment. “We might still have a yard knocking about. Would that be patriotic enough?”

“A yard? Well, why didn’t you say so? We can work backwards from that. Three feet to the yard, right?”

“Well, I suppose so, Director. But it would be much easier if,…”

“No, Bert. I told you. The meter is out. Go fetch the yard, man.”

With a sigh, Bert hung his coat up again. He hoped he was right, and the actual yard hadn’t gone rusty, or worse, been chucked out too, or they were really sunk. Even then, how he was going to explain this to the manufacturer without reference to anything metric, he didn’t know. They’d have to measure the yard in terms of something else. There were inches, of course, thirty-six of them to the yard, and patriotic he supposed, but he’d not seen, or indeed used, any of those tricky little blighters for decades. As for the pounds and ounces thing, well Bert still wasn’t for letting that awkward bit of news out of the bag. He was retiring tomorrow, come hell or high water, and by the time it was discovered by the higher ups,… well, it was definitely going to be someone else’s problem.

The Wharfe, Langstrothdale, Yorkshire Dales

I thought I might as well visit Langstrothdale, while I was up this way – this way being the Upper Wharfe, in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s evening, the shadows are long, the light is pure gold, and the Wharfe is the prettiest I’ve ever seen it. We’re nearing the source of the river here, so there’s not much breadth to it, but it makes up for that with vigour, and a charming little waterfall every couple of yards.

It’s my first time, actually, but it will not be my last. A narrow road brings us up from Buckden, by the George Inn, at Hubberholme, and on, via a series of dramatic dips and bends, to the farm at Yockenthwaite. We’ve left the car near there, at a roadside pull-in. The river is close to hand, easily accessible, and looking like a favourite picnic and paddling spot for those in the know.

The George Inn, Hubberholme

The drive would take us on to Hawes, eventually, but we’ll save that for when we’re in the little blue car, and then we’ll get the top down, so we can feel the drive, as well as see it. This is such a gorgeous, timeless place. If you wanted to film a drama, and needed a location that could pass for the 1930’s without much fudging, this is where you’d come – as indeed they did for the later series of Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

One of the downsides to carrying the phone everywhere is your emails can catch up with you, and I’ve just had one from the energy company that threatened to spoil my day. I’d been feeling pretty smug, actually. Draconian economies at the old homestead had cut our energy use by a third, so I was thinking – crisis or not – we were quids in. Then I get this email telling me my bills will still be fifty percent higher than they were last month. And, then passing the filling station, near Grassington, this morning, I noted the price of fuel had hit £1.76 per litre, which was around 10p a litre higher than when I filled up a few days ago. There is a feeling of poor old Albion careering into disaster.

Everyone’s struggling with it, and the poorest will be crucified by what’s coming. It grates, of course. We’ll be washing in cold water next, and banning the Lady Graeme from baking cakes (the last straw!). But an evening like this, by the Wharfe, up Langstrothdale, laughs out loud at such things. The world, as we’ve made it, and I mean the world beyond this gorgeous fold of a dale, seems a universe away, now.

Yockenthwaite, Langstrothdale

Not a long walk today. Just a mile up river, from Yockenthwaite farm, to Deepdale, then back – a bit of a scouting mission for future expeditions. The meadows are bright green and splashed with broad strokes of yellow from the buttercups. A closer look by the path-side as we make our way reveals the tiny blue faces of germander speedwell, and the little white stars of common mouse ear. Lower down the valley, in the meadows by Hubberholme, this morning, I found the bolder saxifrage, mayflower, butterwort, and campion, all in profusion, and then a lone early purple orchid.

It’s a little cold, and many of the gnarly trees by the river are looking haggard, but I guess they’re just a bit late putting on their leaves. It’s summer at home, down on the Lancashire plain. Here in the higher dales, though, it’s still spring, and looking a little uncertain of itself.

The Yockenthwaite Cricle

There’s a small stone circle along the way that I’ve been wanting to visit for a while. I’d wondered if it would be difficult to find, as many of these small antiquities sometimes are, but there it is, plain as day, and beautifully located between sparkling river and fellside. Given its size, I’m wondering if it’s more likely a ring of kerb stones for what was once a burial mound, or if it marks the site of a hut. The fact it’s on the tilt, is also curious.

So, yes, I’m missing the little blue car on this trip. She’s in for a tidy-up. I first brought her up the Wharfe the summer I bought her, 2014. I was only going to keep her a few years, get the open-top roadster thing out of my system, but we’re still together. A marriage made in heaven, you might say. The back wings are blistering out, like they always do on this marque, but I’ve managed to find a man who restores cars, and that wasn’t easy. Welding skills are becoming rare. Fingers crossed, though, my man will have her back in fine fettle with some more summers ahead of her. Then, sure as eggs, we’ll be up this way again, and we’ll drive that road from Buckden to Hawes, just like we said.

The Wharfe, Langstrothdale

This evening, I’m wondering about old Albion, down there, beyond this fold of dale, and am almost reluctant to return to the madness it has become lately. I’ve been keeping company with J B Priestly throughout this trip, reading some of his short stories, and in one of them a character describes people as either asleep, or dead. It seems a cruel thing to say, but I think I know what he means. We’ll not hurry back. We’ll settle by the river a while, and watch the light moving across the fells.

Thanks for listening.