Archive for June, 2010

I enjoyed a shorter walk this weekend, a little closer to home,  in the company of my good lady and number two son. The West Pennine moors and Rivington used to be my back yard, and I would visit them most weeks. As a child, my bedroom window had a view of  them stretching from Great Hill to Smithills moor, and bang in the middle was Rivington Pike. So,.. I knew these hills in all their seasons, explored every inch of them with my telescope, and later, as a young man wiht a motorbike,  with my boots. They were the hills of home, a fold of  land possessed of a particular shape, by which I navigated my place in the world. In terms of altitude, they fall just shy of 1500′ (Winter Hill), the Pike itself being 1196′ and a respectable hike, though somewhat easier of access.


There’s nothing like an occasional long absence for bringing home to you the difference between rose-tinted memory and base reality.

The West Pennines are an important reserve, an important wilderness in the declining catalogue of Britain’s wild open spaces, but they’re also an indication of how the urbanite British value such places, which judging by this weekend’s appearances, isn’t very much. In short Rivington Pike is awash with trash. I don’t remember it ever being as  bad as it was today. Everywhere I looked the trail was littered, dumped, and indeed crapped upon with all manner of sordid detritus. Oh deary me, it was grim!

By contrast, last weekend, I walked from the little Cumbrian village of Grasmere and trekked for eight miles over Tarn Crag and Helm Crag, returning to my car some six and a half hours later, and I know I harped on a bit about how much is cost me to park my car at Broadgate Meadow, but really, I saw not a single piece of trash, and that £6.50 suddenly doesn’t seem so extravagant! My experience was of a pristine wilderness, uplifting, pure, and utterly breathtaking.

The trek up the Pike today also took my breath away, but for other reasons.

The proximity of several large towns is no coincidence of course: Bolton, Horwich, Chorley, Blackburn,… the area is a short drive away from getting on for a million potential visitors, and they’re clearly putting the area under a severe strain. Littering is something you shouldn’t do of course and theoretically you can be fined for it, but our towns can be waist deep in the stuff, so enforcement is clearly not a priority and the populace obviously look upon the regulations with equal contempt. It may be that urban living instills in one the sense that it’s the council’s job to tidy up – after all what do we pay our taxes for? But out in the remoter countryside, up Rivington Pike, if a disposable nappy, to quote one rather unpalatable example, is dumped under a bush to attract the flies, that’s probably where it’s going to stay, and nature’s going to have a hard time breaking it’s more synthetic constituents down. So, next time I wander up that way, I’m not going to be thinking to myself: oh here’s where that dog rose was growing last time, or: here’s where I get the best view of the Ribble estuary – it’s going to be: oh dear, this is where that nappy’s lying under that bush!

As we approached the Pike a gang of teenaged lads came tearing down the hillside on their mountain bikes, scattering young and old asunder as they made their careless, brake screeching way, effing and blinding at the tops of their voices as they passed. Now, I have been known to utter the occasional expletive myself – you don’t grow up in an engineering factory without gaining a working knowledge of colourful language, but no matter how hard you cursed with your colleagues, it was always considered bad form to do it in front of women and children. I found I was embarrassed, indeed ashamed I had brought my good lady and my son with me. This landscape meant so much to me once, and I had wanted to share it, but instead found myself having to come to terms with the fact that it was looking a little worn, evene a little sordid.

All right, if you want a quiet contemplative stroll, the last thing you do is climb Rivington Pike on a Sunday, but the litter, the eyesore, I’m afraid, is permanent. We are becoming careless of each other, yet paradoxically assuming little responsibility for ourselves, and instead assuming this contemptible other is at fault  for getting in our way, for not picking up the litter that we drop, and for generally not being there to take the blame for our own failings.

On occasion, I have picked the occasional gaudy cellophane wrapper out of the hedgerow and put it in my dustbin at home, so I feel very virtuous, but that shit filled, fly spotted nappy – well that’s someone else’s responsibility, I’m afraid.

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Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. So said Lady Caroline Lamb of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Self centred, caring only for their art, living lives of outrageous sexual excess, racking up stupendous debts, dying young amid a sickly opium haze, and leaving behind as much scandal as is humanly possible,… all these things conjure up the image of the  archetypal Romantic poet. But it wasn’t just the poets; Romanticism was a way of thinking that informed all of the arts, and even the spiritual beliefs of its devotees, who veered away from mainstream Christianity into the realms of mystical apostasy.

The Romantics have always interested me, and my interest is explored in this piece, but I warn you, I failed English Literature at school. I hadn’t a clue what the subject was supposed to be getting at, and even after forty years, I still can’t look at copy of Dickens’ Great Expectations without feeling sick (sorry Charles). So, if you’re looking for something to copy in your homework essay, I’d be careful cutting and pasting any of the following, or you’re most likely heading for a “D”.

This isn’t about an examination for me, nor a line by line analysis of what the Romantic poets wrote. It’s about something more important – understanding what it was they were on about, and how it might shine a light on the texture and the moods of my own life. That’s not literature. It’s survival.

I started this quest long ago by going back in time to the early  twentieth century, and to the work of that great European thinker: Carl Jung. Jung took me in hand for a while and led me further back in time, to the East, to China, to the philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism, to the enigmatic wisdom of the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching.  But at the same time, sitting on a stone, half way up an English mountain, there was this other old guy whose acquaintance I kept nodding to as I passed him on the path up into the clouds. His name was William Wordsworth. I liked the look of him, but I never really engaged with him because there was also something formidable, something inaccessible in his gaze.

But the serendipitous turns of the way that have led me through Eastern mysticism and are now bringing me back to the native mysticism of the European Romantics. I’ve had my chat with Jung, and Lao Tzu, and now I see Wordsworth nodding, beckoning me with a fatherly smile, to follow him up into the mists of Helvellyn for a long walk and a talk about this and that, and I think I trust him to be a reliable guide. Romanticism, like the mountain scenery they revered, can be a dangerous place to wander unprepared, and you need to watch where you put your feet.

You might say all of this makes me a little out of date, possibly also a little mad, and if you’re a Lit student you can no doubt come up with a learned analysis, plagiarised from some recognised academic authority on the subject of human folly, supported by relevant quotations of course, which proves I’m no more knowledgeable than the bumpkin my exam result says I am. Being a Romantic however, I hold the trump card, because I view the world from the centre of myself, and through the peculiarly distorted optical apparatus of my own imagination, which may indeed colour things somewhat, but also makes my quest for the Romantics a Romantic quest in itself. I am a Romantic.

I therefore blow a raspberry, and continue with impertinence.

I believe the romantics were really onto something and I’d like to share with you my reasons for that belief. In the early nineteenth century,  human potential in western Europe seemed poised, ready to take a different path altogether to the one it ultimately took. It spat in the face of Materialism, of established religion, and the hypocritical moral values of the day, and we can only wonder what would have emerged from the Romantics if their fever had been only a little more infectious. These are timeless themes, old lessons you might say, as valid today as they ever were, but now, as then, although we nod sagely at the wisdom and the sentiment of the Romantics, we also dismiss them as unrealistic, and instead we embrace the Materialist world as being the only valid reality, the only reality that is in any way practical.

And look where that’s got us.

By contemplating the world from the centre of one’s self, in the Romantic fashion, one realises there is no difference between what one is looking at, and what any of us actually is, that we are all connected through this dream of the world, that the world is nothing, yet everything at the same time. Would we by now have had a western tradition of contemplative, non hierarchical mysticism, something akin to philosophical Daoism, or Buddhism? Would we have had a much greener world by virtue of our deeper connection with Nature?

The official closing date for the Romantic period was the accession of Queen Victoria, in 1837, but the Romantics weren’t consulted about this and carried on regardless, their influence informing the work, and the Bohemian ways of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, who began painting in the late 1840’s and went on, right through to the early 20th century. Indeed, their influence can still be found in the arts today, and also in the blogs of a certain kind of dreamer who writes essays like this one.

But from the middle nineteenth century, the voice of Romanticism was increasingly a voice without influence, as the rest of the world chose a path of unbridled Materialism: industrial development, urbanisation, and economic expansion, which led to the interconnected and thoroughly globalised world we live in today. Landscapes were transformed; Sylvan vales were lost beneath the sulphurous slag heaps of collieries, skylines were obliterated by forests of factory chimneys, and the countryside was drained of its population,  sucked by economic necessity into the mills where hands that had once steered horse-drawn ploughs or wielded a scythe, now became the hands of slaves, tied to machines. It happened across Europe in the nineteenth century. It’s happening all over the far east today.

I don’t think we had a choice really; this dark path was inevitable, but we seem to be reaching the end of it now – not because we’re waking up from the madness, but because the earth itself is showing signs of impatience, and is forcing our hand, making us look hard for different ways of living that are more in harmony with the natural heartbeat of the planet we’re sitting on. So, it’s time to be thinking of other things, before we destroy ourselves completely. Perhaps the Romantics still have something worth teaching us about the world?… but they lived so long ago: if only we could remember what it was they said!


From my armchair, here in the early twenty first century, I can see we’ve given birth to an age of machines that are capable of doing anything. A look at the sophistication of the humanoid robots we’re building tells us Asimov’s future is almost upon us, but none of these machines will ever tell us what it means to be human, nor indeed even how to be happy. Our machines are marvellously adept, but although they each have an apparent purpose in material terms, in a greater sense, there is no point to them at all.

The Romantics still feature large in the collective imagination; I read their poems at school, in the 60’s and 70’s but we need to be careful in unwrapping the neat packaging they’ve been presented in.  In Materialistic terms, they’re marketable, because there’s something in Romanticism that is easily confused with sentimentality, or cheap nostalgia. And then there’s all that sex! We listen to the soundbites of their poetry and fancy we hear in them the lament for a lost Arcadia. This is a sure-fire till-ringer, so the Romantics find themselves boiled down to just another stop on the conveyor belt of potted culture. Look too closely and you’ll find  their language difficult, their forms of verse too twiddly for the impatient modern ear, but back up a bit, look at them through half closed eyes and you might find you rather like the foppish clothes they wore, you might find the country houses they lived in rather quaint.


Arcadia was never a place, never a lost paradise. No one understood this more than the Romantics. Arcadia is here and it is now, but the only way to see it is to go inside your head. For that you need to know how to look – and they knew how to look. The Romantic sees Arcadia, where others see nothing, and therein lies the vulnerability of genuine Romanticism, and Romantics, for in an otherwise tainted world, where others see nothing, the blind have a habit of stomping all over the Romantics’ Arcadia and rendering it about as magical, mystical and meaningful as a graffiti-sprayed bus shelter.

I tend to think of Wordsworth as the most successful of the Romantics. I say “successful” because unlike many of his illustrious contemporaries, he managed to remain sane, coherent and genuinely beloved of others, into ripe old age.

If you visit the UK from overseas, on a packaged tour, and you come to the Lake District, you’ll no doubt find yourself in Grasmere and at the door of Dove Cottage, home to Wordsworth from 1799 to 1808 –  what are claimed to be, poetically speaking, his most fertile years. Be warned though: there may be a long queue, because you’re just one of the 70,000 pilgrims who cross the threshold every year in search of the Wordsworth vibe. For your £7.50 admission (2010 season), you’ll get a  thirty minute tour of the hallowed walls, of this rather gloomy little place, and then you’re out of the back door,  the next lot comes in, and there you are: everything you possibly need to know about the sage of Grasmere and his muses.

But to my mind the most poignant memorial to Romanticism, and Wordworth’s legacy, lies hidden away behind Dove Cottage. It wasn’t mentioned in the tour I made of the house, though I had gone there specifically to seek it out, and I had to ask the tour guide for directions; it is the Rock of Names. There’s  no charge to see it, and you get to it by wandering up by the side of the visitor centre, so when you’ve shuffled around the cottage, and before you empty your wallet on Romantic memorabilia in the shop, be sure to go and have a look at it. The Rock of names is interesting, and in its story I see a metaphor for both the story and the meaning of  Romanticism itself. Here’s a picture of it:

I think I’m okay showing this. There were no signs saying I couldn’t take it, but you have to be careful around museums.

What is it? Well, it’s an  outcrop of rock, worn smooth, glistening with water that spills down from the fellside. If you look more closely you’ll also see, chiselled into it, a kind of graffiti, but we’ll forgive the vandals on this occasion. The initials were carved with the blade of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s penknife in the summer of 1800. I’ve printed them here for clarity:


See if you can spot them!

WW  – you can probably guess is WiIlliam Wordsworth himself. M.H. is Mary Hutchinson, who just a few years later became William’s wife. D.W. is his sister Dorothy, mysterious muse, unsung heroine of the Romantic movement, and the maker of two of it’s finest poets – Wordsworth and Coleridge. STC is  Coleridge himself. JW is John Wordsworth, William’s brother who would be lost at sea in 1805. SH, is Sarah Hutchinson, Mary’s sister, and the love of Coleridge’s life, though not to be confused with his wife, who was also called Sarah.

It looks like it’s been there for ever, but the stone originally sat some six miles north of Grasmere, at Wythburn, in what is now a lost valley. The Wordworths would set off from Grasmere, in the south, Coleridge from Keswick, in the north, and they would rendezvous at a place equidistant from their respective abodes. On this particular occasion they were also moved to immortalise the spot and their presence in it. Here’s what Wordsworth wrote about it:

Rock of Names

Light is the strain, but not unjust,
To Thee and thy memorial tryst,
That once seemed only to express,
Love that was love in idleness,
Tokens, as year hath followed year,
How changed, alas, in character!
For they were graven on thy smooth breast
By hands of those my soul loved best;
Meek women, men as true and brave
As ever went to hopeful grave:
Their hands and mine, when side by side
With kindred zeal and mutual pride,
We worked until the initials took
Shapes that defied a scornful look.
Long as for us a genial feeling
Survives, or one in need of healing,
The power, dear Rock, around thee cast,
Thy monumental power, shall last
For me and mine! Oh thought of pain,
That would impair it or profane!
Take all in kindness then, as said,
With a staid heart but playful head;
And fail not Thou, loved Rock to keep
Thy charge when we are laid asleep.


Wordsworth died in 1850, but the mystical spell that he seems to have cast around this monument was later broken by controversy and the rising spectre of Victorian Materialism. By the 1870’s the city of Manchester, undergoing a stupendous expansion, and in desparate need of water for its factories, hatched a plan to create what is now known as the Thirlmere reservoir. This would mean the flooding of Wythburn, and submerging the Rock of Names. Reading contemporary accounts of the original vale, it was a place of great beauty, where two smaller natural lakes, Leathes Water and Wythburn Water, nestled among dramatic craggy outcrops. There was a public outcry, but  the reservoir scheme went ahead anyway and was finished in 1894.

When you visit Thirlmere today it’s easy to see you’re looking at a reservoir. In the dry months, it has a tide line all around it, and of course there’s a massive dam at one end. Time has softened its impact somewhat, and the surrounding mountain scenery still lends it a measure of dramatic power, but the truth of what was lost here will never really be known or understood by the modern writer. As for the Rock of Names, the solution was simple: if engineers could flood a valley and relay its water via an underground pipe some ninety four miles south, to Manchester, they could surely hack out a simple piece of rock and set it up somewhere else,… couldn’t they? Well, they tried but the rock shattered, like the romantic dream itself shattered under the inexorable pressures of technological progress, and materialism.

The pieces were gathered up and found their way to Dove cottage which, even as early as the 1890’s, had already become a shrine to all things Wordsworthian. They were reassembled  as neatly as possible, and that’s how you see them today (the joint lines are clearly visible in my photograph). Writing in 1887,  the historians Harry Goodwin and William Knight described the Rock in its original setting as “an upright mural block of stone, moist with pure water tricking down“. As a resting place then, the current site is as near perfect as can be, but in a crucial sense it’s not really the same, because the romantic spell is broken.

There’s something in Romanticism we think we should value, but in trying to fit it around our Materialist ways, we only end up breaking it. There is something uncompromising in its ideals, and the places you find its mysterious wisdoms aren’t always convenient or negotiable. The Rock of Names meant something, once, but only as Wordsworth meant it, in Wythburn, in the trysting place it once stood, as those his “soul loved best” saw, and felt it in the summer of 1800. To think you can pick it up and push it around like a trinket on a shop counter is simply to corrupt it. Though it remains today a fine and emotive memorial to the Lake poets, well worth seeking out, it would possess far more raw Romantic power had it been submerged and remained at the bottom of Thirlmere to this day.

If you’re visiting Dove Cottage, be sure to pester the tour guide and ask for directions to it. Unpot your Romanticism for a moment, and start feeing it!

So,… the Romantics lived in the Lakes, and nobody really got them, and the spectre of Victorian materialism rendered them obsolete? Well,… actually, no. Romanticism was a philosophical movement, not confined to the English Lakes. The only reason the Lakes is associated with Romanticism is because Wordworth and Coleridge, (and Robert Southey of course) decided to hang their hats there. Some would say Romanticism’s most revered academic and guru was Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher upon whose thesis, “The World as Will and Idea”, the whole of the Romantic credo can be said to rest.

You cannot ignore Materialism, any more than you can hide from it. It’s like life; there’s an inevitability about it, like the growth of Manchester in the nineteenth century, and it is motivated by nothing more complicated than the will to live, for life to  simply perpetuate itself, from the seething swamp, to the mightiest of cities. The theory of Evolution provides the scientific bedrock for what Schopenhauer defined as this “will” to live. Nature simply is, says Darwin; it swarms, it survives, it is red in tooth and claw, and by inference if something can be sold for even a penny profit, then it will be sold, because such is the natural law. However, human desires, engendered by this instinctive will are doomed to end only in spiritual bankruptcy, boredom, or in the birth of some new, equally shallow or self defeating desire. The Romantics, like anyone else, had no choice but to accept this, but while they agreed you could live this way, they were contemptuous of it,  and warned us that there was simply no point to it.

Schopenhauer’s “Will” is like “Maya”, the world of suffering and delusion described by the Buddhists, in which we identify ourselves through our Ego, through the false image we have of ourselves and its all-consuming wants. Living our life in thrall to the world of will, is to live a life constantly chasing gratification while remaining for ever unsatisfied. It is the instinctive anticipation of gratification that drives the machine of Materialism, and our instinctive blindness that renders us incapable of realising this machine will never deliver what it is we want.  But the Romantics were far from pessimistic in their vision; there was another way, they said, and this was what Schopenhauer called the world of “idea”, or “representation”.

This is a difficult concept for one steeped in a Materialist tradition to grasp, and it will sound like nonsense, but it essentially involves a more aesthetic experience of the world, an experience owing more to the imagination, and the inner sense, or by indulging what the psychoanalysts a hundred years later would come to understand as the psyche. It was only through this pursuit of the aesthetic experience, the Romantics believed we could open the door on our highest potential as human beings, something that raised us above the level of beasts and freed us from the shackles of Darwin’s Godless universe.

This was and still is the central paradox of the human condition: the more closely we look at the world, the more we must conclude we are nothing but a sophisticated kind of animal, yet ultimately of no greater nor less importance than all the other animals that roam the earth, that the light of our lives will eventually go out and everything we’ve known and felt will be as nothing in the void,…

And yet,… and yet,…

There is also something in us that disregards the evidence of our eyes and our intellect, and tells us it is not so, that there is something else underpinning the reality we see, and there is something telling us also that such speculation is not merely the result of wishful thinking. And then, occasionally, curious things happen, or can be made to happen, that reassure us we are not merely deluded.

This was the ground the Romantics trod.

At its most basic level, the aesthetic experience involves the contemplation or the expression of beauty, either through the arts or by going out into the natural world where you can find it freely, and in abundance.  A meadow of wild flowers, a sunset, or something more subjective – like the way sunlight filters down through autumn leaves, or the rising of morning mist from the still surface of a lake –  or subtler still – a romantic could look at an empty valley, or a ruined cottage and imagine the lives that had been lived there in the past, the more bucolic the better, a thing that would colour their imagination and transform an otherwise bleak wilderness into a place of warmth and inspiration. Such things are revealed by the sensitive eye, and felt in a meaningful way by a sensitive heart. The world we experience then, say the Romantics, is only half perceived through the physical senses – it is also half created through the higher the faculties of the mind.

The contemplation of beauty is without risk, but its rewards are limited. The serious Romantics, the Byronic heroes, were looking for more. What they sought went beyond beauty into the realms of a powerfully moving experience they called the sublime. To encounter the sublime, there had to be an element of danger, and the Romantics found this among the mountains, or anywhere where nature could be experienced in the raw, where the scenery had a dramatic or even terrifying effect on the observer, and where the rugged nature of the landscape, and one’s tenuous presence in it became altogether more challenging. To feel nature in this way, to feel one’s insignificance in the face of it, is paradoxically the key to glimpsing the underlying nature of reality, where one’s sense of “self” dissolves and we enter what some have described as the consciousness of the universe,… what in Buddhism is called “the big mind”. While one’s individuality may be said to be lost in such an experience, there is in fact no “sense” of that loss, more simply an awakening to the true and full nature of one’s own identity.

The quest for the sublime has its risks – not just the physical ones of falling to your death by slipping off a mountain. There are also psychological dangers. Touching “big mind” can generate a form of megalomania. It can also become compulsive, generating an insatiable thirst for ever more intense experiences, a kind of Materialistic Romanticism, which some devotees  greedily sought in opium-induced distortions of reality, with all its attendant side effects.

The sublime experience has its parallels in the form of psychological awakening that  eastern cultures explored a thousand years earlier, by a systematic analysis of the mind, and by formulating meditative techniques by which adepts could reliably attain the same insights as their teachers. It also has its parallels in Jungian analysis, his theories of the collective unconscious, and in the human development movement it spawned. All of these things are pointing in the same direction, like an innate sense, like a mystical compass.

The Romantics found this compass at the dawning of the nineteenth century, and used it to navigate around the edges of their known world. They concluded that there is a hard edge to reality. It obeys scientific principles, which, with patience and ingenuity can be gleaned from nature’s copy-book and used to our material advantage – but this version of reality is Godless, and empty, and if we submerge ourselves in it fully  it will leave us only half fulfilled, because we only half belong in it.

The strength of the Romantic is in their ability to look at the world and see it through the lens of their imagination, as well as their eyes. The result is a personal vision, one which might not be shared by others – nor even by fellow Romantics, because the thing about the Romantic lens is its individuality. The only common thing about it is its inability to function at all in a world that has been turned into a dustbin, or an aesthetic desert.

The nightmare of the Romantic is a world consisting of a single, giant Materialist construct, half city, half machine in which we are reduced to functioning as biological extensions of a mindless man-built pseudo-deity, something that acts without rhyme or reason, and sweeps us along in its own purposeless wake – something like “the globalised market-place” for example? The nightmare of the Romantic is also to see the last clean hillside obliterated by a forest of utilitarian wind-turbines, or the last Sylvan vale bunged up and flooded to feed the thirsty mouths of those gathered in cities hundreds of miles away, and who labour in soulless ignorance of the Romantic values sacrificed in order to sustain their unnatural existence.

But the psyche of man, infinitely older and wiser than man himself, will not stand for it. It will only take so much of a life void of the Romantic sense, void of the need to honour what is good and Godlike in itself, before it erupts into incomprehensible fits of madness. We are each of us God-like beings, crippled by the abiding delusion that we are only machines. This is what the Romantics saw, while lamenting that none but a handful of their fellow beings could ever share this vision, being too busy with the pursuit of wealth and other kinds of learning.

To be sure, the twenty first century is a hard time to be a Romantic, but then it always was. If you’re a Romantic, take courage – you’re the only hope we’ve got. Take courage also that, no matter how bad things might yet become, there will always be somewhere left on earth you will find your Arcadia, because there’s only you who knows how to find it.

Enjoy yourselves and keep safe.

Graeme out

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The most expensive car-park in England?

It came as a surprise to me recently when I realised just how many years it’s been since I loaded up my gear and spent a day in the Lakes, walking. I used to do it all the time but I’ve been favouring the Dales and Bowland of late, and now it’s been so long I didn’t even realise the little carpark half way along Grasmere’s  Easedale Road had been built upon – not that I would ever park that close to the fells anyway – oh no, not me – that carpark was for wimps and I’m glad it’s gone. Really.

So,… I left Old Grumpy down in the village, on the carpark, at Broadgate Meadow. This provided the only shock of the day, and left me with the feeling that it’ll be a long time before I visit Grasmere again. Actually this happens every time I visit Grasmere – the last occasion being when I stayed there with my good lady and we paid £400 for two nights in a box-room with mouldy wallpaper – but hey, forgive and forget,…

I approached the pay and display meter in all innocence, fumbling for my loose change, and was unable to restrain myself from exclaiming out loud: “F…..! How much?”

Then I thought: but nobody carries that much shrapnel in their pockets, do they? It must be some kind of  joke. But it wasn’t.  Walkers beware. If you need more than four hours here – which you will do if you’re going up into the fells, it’ll cost you £6.50 this season just to park your car.  Indeed it’s become so expensive to park  in the Lakes these days there’s now an option to pay by  mobile phone! Holiday in the UK? Sure! Why go abroad when you can be ripped off so effectively at home?

The point of the day was to clear my mind, but sometimes if you’re not careful, you just end up taking it with you! So,… forget all that now: deep breath, shoulder the pack and off we go.

Initially I followed the popular trail up towards Sour Milk Ghyll, which was busy with walkers, both setting out and returning from the lovely hike up to Easedale Tarn. I wasn’t bothered about visiting the tarn so, above the waterfall, and with Tarn Crag now in full view, I cut across country, fording the ghyll and making a beeline for the foot of Tarn Crag’s east ridge. You can probably only do this in dry weather, and I wouldn’t recommend you follow my example here anyway or the National Park Warden will probably shout at you for daring to stray from the path – but I’d just paid £6.50 to park my car, so I’ll do, go, and walk where I bloody well like!

All right, all right,… where was I?

Ah,… East ridge. Once I set foot on Tarn Crag’s east ridge I had the sense of being the last man on earth and I saw not another soul for two long, blissful hours. There’s no erosion on this hill at all, the way being marked by an intermittent, grassy path, exactly as Alfred Wainwright described it in 1958, in his Central Fells book. Its intermittent nature makes it a little difficult to follow, but the route to the summit is fairly straight forward, so long as visibility is good. If it’s not, if it’s a bad day, and you don’t know the area very well, I’d advise you to stay away from Tarn Crag altogether. The most obvious danger here would be to stray too far along the ridge, miss the grassy rake that leads you up to the summit, and find yourself on the crags of Deer Bields instead. Deer Bields is mountaineering country, and you need a good head for that sort of thing.

From the summit you have the most stunning 360 degree vista, and the hill’s worth a visit on its own just for this view – as well as the sense of isolation and peace, because judging by today, you’re unlikely to be fighting for somewhere to sit down, as you will be later on, on the top of Helm Crag.

From here, you can do like Wainwright says and retrace your steps back down the east ridge, or, if it’s clear, you can follow a faint path that leads you west, then peters out into the wilderness of Grasmere Common. I followed my nose from here, thinking there was probably a way over to the head of Far Easedale. If there is, it’s not obvious, or it’s easily lost amid a confusion of  faint sheep tracks. You need a good, clear day for wandering about up here.

My GPS track log tells me I continued west, until Coledale tarn was due south of me.  There was a faint path coming up from the tarn but again nothing to indicate this was a well travelled route. Then I headed north, down a gully which is probably going to be very boggy in the wet.  Fernhill Crag was off to my right, and when it was due east I finally picked up the faint traces of a path coming up from the head of Far Easedale, which became more obvious as it led me over Broadstone head, wending round to the west to meet Mere Beck, then finally descending north to the head of Far Easedale. There were a handful of walkers coming up this way, and it does seem to be a recognised route, but obvious it is not.

When I’m not sure of my way in the hills  I find myself always with one eye on the weather, so there was little by way of mystical contemplation on Tarn Crag and Grasmere Common. It was cooler up there than in the valley, but still clear – just the occasional brush of fair-weather cloud to dim the sun, but it wasn’t until I saw that definite path coming up from Far Easedale, I was able to switch over from left to right brain mode and allow myself to indulge in a more abstract way of thinking. Left brain likes its maps, its pecked lines, its coordinates, but the route from here was familiar and has been followed in all kinds of weather, so  I finally put the map away and switched the GPS off.

I settled down in the grass, made some notes, took some pictures, scanned the fells with my new Cliimo 10×32 binoculars, (not bad for £25.00) and began chatting to a few ghosts – not real ones you understand – just voices in my head. I don’t think I’m insane, or my good lady would already have told me; all right, I’m a bit eccentric – this  is just the way it goes with me at times, and if you’ve read any of my stories you’ll know where my characters get it from. Let me try to explain: a lot of  ancient greek philosophy has come to us in the form of dialogues, which I personally find a bit irritating to wade through, but if you try it yourself on your own half baked ideas it’s a useful way of exploring things. I imagine a companion, and they take up one side of the discussion, then I answer back and we play out this “conversation” as we amble sedately over the hills. Sometimes it’ll yield a useful gem, sometimes not. I don’t speak out loud when I’m doing this of course or I might cause worried glances from passing walkers. It’s all done in the head, a purely mental exercise, you understand, and I find it deeply relaxing. Its just that it has  a funny effect on dogs.

Did you say dogs?

I can’t explain this, and I may just be imagining it – I get on really well with dogs most of the time, but when I’m in ghost mode, it sends them wild – they bark, they cower, they bare their teeth and leap in the air at me. It happened on Calf Crag as I innocently made my way in the company of a particularly interesting ghost who’d just introduced me to a pleasantly deep train of thought, only for us then to jump out of our skins when a cocker spaniel went ape and caused its seated owners to spill their coffee. The ghost evaporated for the rest of the walk, and I don’t blame it, while I muttered a shocked oath.

I’ve noticed at times like this dog owners focus their attention on the animal, telling it not to be silly – that  “it’s just a man in a hat” or something, as if it can understand them – never mind the man in the hat who’s just cacked himself on account of their animal – no apology, nothing, even though I am a human being and could have understood, appreciated, and accepted an apology ! There was even the impression that it was my fault for wearing a hat. At best they will lamely suggest the  dog “means no harm”, but I’ve heard that one before. I once saw a  frail old gentleman flattened to the ground – walking sticks akimbo, because a blundering great black labrador had taken a playful run at him and jumped on his back. The owner’s unflustered response, as I helped said gentleman back onto his pins was that the dog  wouldn’t hurt anyone. Sorry – I do like dogs, really – it’s just that they can be so stupid. And they don’t seem to like me talking to ghosts.

Anyway, where were we? Sorry this isn’t much of a walking guide is it? Once you’ve negotiated the uncertainties of Grasmere Common and picked up the path that takes you down to the head of Far Easedale, you can then keep to the high ground and follow the return leg of this spectacular horseshoe over Calf Crag, Gibson Knott and finally Helm Crag. Unlike Tarn Crag, which is unfrequented, this is a popular path, and you’ll rarely be out of sight of another human being. Then you’re down, legs aching, feet burning, and in Grasmere again  – watch your pockets or they’ll have what’s left of your change!

Except it was going up for six now and I was ready for something to eat.

I wondered about Cumberland sausage and mash at one of the eateries, except I decided I’d been fleeced enough on the carpark that morning (did I tell you how much I paid?) so  I called into the minimart instead, chose a packaged salad that had probably been made in Manchester, a bottle of pop that might even have come all the way from China, then queued up at the till. Curious bit this: The queue was about four deep and it was coming up for my turn when a surly looking youth joined it in front of me with a look as if to say you’re not going to make a fuss are you? The checkout girl was chatting to him in a way that led me to believe he was a local –  saying he looked a bit jaded and had he had a rough night last night? Not: “Oy, get to the back of the queue, your ignorant moron – there are customers waiting.” Locals are a special case it seems, and above the mere visitor, with his sweaty hat and his lumbering great day-sack. (I trust not all locals have this attitude)

Did I say anything to the ignorant  moron? Did my newly discovered grumpy-self remonstrate? Did Ego rear his ugly head? No. The locals can be as ignorant as they like. Their Karma is their own business, as is mine.

And I’d just had a very good day in the hills.

It’s a while since I had a day alone in the Lakes and I have to say now with the head of long years and experience that I’m not sure about the Lake District any more. I’m truly sad to say this, because I have so many fond memories of times spent here among the mountains. I suppose if you can find one of the vanishingly rare laybys where you can park your car for free, bring your own refreshments, and stay away from the towns, you’ll find the fells are as welcoming as always. As for how welcome you are off the fells, my impression is that you’re welcome enough, but only so long as you’re spending money in the shops and the hotels and the bars, and you can take your fleecing with a smile – otherwise you’ve no business being here and you can just bloody well push off.

Holiday UK has a long way to go. We just don’t do hospitality in the UK. Instead we have the attitude  that we can charge visitors what we like for the most basic of services, and get away with it. Well, I’m sorry Grasmere, but the next time you see me and old grumpy, we’ll just be passing through.

Did I mention is cost me £6.50 to park here?

Goodnight all. Enjoy yourselves and stay safe. (sorry David, I stole your line*)

Graeme out!

*David Beckham, in a passing comment to the UK media, regarding gathered fans, hopeful of England’s chances at the South African World Cup, in 2010.

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