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Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Town Bridge, Croston

The year begins with a peculiar dream, but more of that later. Right now we’re standing on Town Road at Croston, waiting for a group of tourists to clear off the seventeenth century Town Bridge, then I can grab a picture of it. They’re taking their time, but that’s fine. It’s a good day and there’s no rush. Meanwhile, traffic is whizzing by on its way to the seaside at Southport, this being the last day of the Christmas holidays, and the last gasp for many before it’s back to work tomorrow. It’ll be nice on the promenade, or are they just after the sales? Do actual shops that engage in sales, still exist? My, how much the world has changed in the last few years.

Grade two listed, Town Bridge forms a neat architectural group with the parish church of St Michael’s and All Angels. Then there’s Church Street, and the old school, all of them dating back to the same period, and worth a look if you’re ever passing. It’s also a good place to begin our first walk of the New Year without having to get the car out. The bridge was built in 1682, the same year Halley named his comet. Newton was still very much alive, and Wikipedia tells me we were also still hanging witches. At least we don’t do that any more.

The tourists move off, and we grab the shot.

So, anyway, home territory today, and a hike across the various moss lands to Mawdesley, then Rufford and back, a circuit of around seven miles, and dead flat. It’s a bright day, too, warm in the sunshine, and looking like the only decent day this week. We have all sorts of miserable weather to come, says the weatherman, so today’s the day. I say “home” territory, but I came to Croston in 1994, and still feel myself to be living in exile. By and large, it’s a friendly place though, and plenty of walking from the doorstep, all of it flat, which, being a hill walker, I tend to be a bit sniffy about. But if pressed, I will admit it does have its charms.

Church Street, Croston

Anyway, back to that dream. There was this old grey horse, thrashing about on its back in my garden pond. Then this foal appears and drags it out by its chin. The old horse looks like it’s been through the mill and is starving. It turns to me with a look as if to say: feed me. So I’m thinking what do horses eat, and how can I get hold of some? I’m still pondering this even as I lie awake, until I realise it’s not a real problem I need to solve. Or is it?

Off we go then. From Town Bridge, we take the cobbled way through Church street, past the church with its slightly drunken tower, then through the ginnel, by the old School. Originally built in 1660, the school is now a community resource centre. It also ran a very well attended pre-school group, but lost its funding last year, and is now closed. The effectiveness of cost seems curiously decoupled from the wider values of human need, regardless of how great, how beneficial or how very much in demand that need is.

Croston Old School

Now, we’re out across the River Yarrow and along Carr Lane, a private access road with very little traffic. Vast meadows open up, lush green and glowing in the sunshine. Dotted around are woodland coverts – much of the area still being the preserve of the armed wing of the Tory party – many an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning commencing with volleys of gunfire. Pheasant have been known to seek shelter in my garden.

Then we’re heading south, to Mawdesley, across a flat, largely featureless landscape, all squared up with drainage ditches. Huge agricultural machines lurk in the corners of meadows like slumbering dragons, and we puzzle over their function. Potato picking, maize harvesting, ditch clearing?

Apart from the great bowl of sky, the dominant feature of this stretch is the three shiny, white wind turbines at Cliff’s Farm. Only two are turning today, casting mile long, moving shadows across the land. The third is motionless, its blade tips feathering the wind. The other thing to notice, more subtle, as we pass from Croston to Mawdesley, is the way the earth changes from a sticky, dark clay to a sandy loam – ideal for carrots, which is the dominant crop here.

Wind Turbines, Cliff’s Farm

From Mawdesley we follow the line of New Reed Brook, then across Mill Ditch to Rufford, and the White Bridge, over the River Douglas. It’s a short stretch of road walking, and no pavement, also incredibly busy. Cars approach at speed, and we time it so we can press ourselves into the thorn hedge as they pass. Most give us plenty of room, the drivers wave, as if to say: it’s fine, mate, we can see you. Some don’t. Apparently, it’s a scientific fact, if you drive a BMW, you’re less likely to be considerate to other road users, especially pedestrians. Apologies if you drive a BMW, I’m sure you’re not like that.

Having survived the road section, we’re back along the green lanes, then across the railway line. Here we pick up the River Douglas, which takes us north, towards Croston. The Douglas is an unattractive river, just here. It was deepened and generally fashioned into a giant drainage channel in the eighteenth century, by Dutch engineers. Pumping stations drained the reclaimed farmland on either side, which would otherwise become lakes at this time of year, and the Douglas carries it out to the Ribble estuary. Pumping recently stopped, and the seasonal lakes are returning. It’ll be a slow process, this return to marsh, but an interesting one to observe.

River Douglas, Rufford

This is the last couple of miles of the poor old Douggie, and I find it a sluggish creature. It’s silty, weary with rubbish from all the towns it’s travelled through, also thick with nitrates and effluent from the dairy farms. It’s also tidal. The tide is up just now, but at the ebb you realise how deep the river is, and it gives me the creeps.

So now we pick up Shepherd’s Lane, a long stretch of a thing, all the way to Finney Lane and what I call the Finney Ash, a favourite tree. As I’m lining it up for a photograph, I realise the camera’s been set on “manual” all the way round, and not on “aperture auto” like I’d thought. This means most of the shots I’ve taken are probably either under or over-exposed duds, and I’ll have nothing to illustrate the blog with. Gormlessness is my default setting. Oh, well,…

Finney Lane, Croston

We return to Croston along Cottage Lane, but these are all “lanes” in the ancient meaning of the word – just paths by the field-sides, wide enough for a horse and cart. The Tarmac and the motor car never came this way. As we head east, along Cottage Lane, we can just about make out Darwen Tower, dead ahead, over twelve miles away, reminding us how far we are from the hills, that without the much maligned motor car, this really would be an exile beyond what we could bear. It would take the whole day to reach Darwen by public transport, and the Dales would only be worth the journey for a week’s holiday.

But back to that dream. The old grey horse is me, of course. Or rather, it’s an aspect of the psyche that’s been floundering on its back, in the metaphorical water, and I can relate to that. The symbolism of the foal, however, defeats me. And the hunger? Well, we’re all hungry for something, but mine seems to be vital to well-being, and I’m starving for the lack of it. And we can’t always see what that is, even when it’s staring us in the face.

Cottage Lane, Croston – a distant Darwen Tower.

Such short days, still. The sun is half an hour away from setting, and the shadows in the ditches are darkening, a fine mist beginning to rise. Back home, the car is heavy with dew, and temperatures plummeting under a clear sky. It feels like it’ll be a frosty one. Winter’s no fun when it’s in a foul mood, but on days like this, winter’s as beautiful as any other time of year to be outdoors.

Pity about those photographs.*

https://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=14/53.6454/-2.7724&layers=C

*The photo pixie was looking after us, and most came out all right.

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Stubai 4 point instep crampons

The cold snap continues, with temperatures down to minus four this morning. There’s been a light fall of snow since we were last out, and it’s become frozen like hammered glass, under a light powdery coating. A clear, dry day today means conditions are too good to be indoors, but we need to find the instep crampons first. I don’t want to end up like the poor old guy who broke his shoulder, and ended up strapped to a plank and driven to A+E by his granddaughter in the back of a van, because there were no ambulances.

Our health service has been running on fumes and the good will of its staff for too long now, and looks finally to have been pushed over the edge everyone, at least on the left of politics, knew was coming. Like Kinnock said in 1987: in the future don’t be young, don’t get old, or ill. He could easily have added: don’t have an accident. He was speaking of the consequences of a win for Thatcher’s conservatism at that year’s election, but our current administration makes hers seem positively benign. They are the most brazenly right-wing we’ve seen since the eighteenth century, and ideologically opposed to the very concept of socialised medicine. And the sharks who keep them in power clearly want it gone.

So, anyway, instep crampons. I bought them after a nightmarish descent from the Old Man of Coniston, one winter, many years ago. I’d gone up the south side which was clear and sunny, then came down the shadow-locked north side, which turned out to be treacherous with rime ice. Fortunately, I haven’t needed them for anything but fun since, and then only rarely do we get the conditions in lowland UK when they’re handy. Not all walking boots are suitable for your full-blown, mountaineering crampon, but with insteps you’re fine. Any old boots will do, and they take up hardly any room in the sack. Mine are old Stubai 4 points, probably considered antique now, but they still work.

The roads are clear as far as Rivington, though no further. Sheephouse Lane has been abandoned to the elements, and is closed to traffic. The first job is to remember how to put the crampons on. People are slithering about all over the place, so it looks like I’m justified in taking the precautions. We’ll do the Pike, up by the Ravine and the Great Lawn, then circle back by Wilcock’s and Dean Wood. A shorter walk than last week’s, then. About five miles and a thousand feet. The light is stunning – crisp and bright – and we should get some good shots.

The way becomes scrunchy and Christmas card-ish very quickly. I recall the insteps require a conscious effort to hit the ice with the rear spikes first, feel them bite, then roll into the front ones, but once we’ve got into the rhythm, it’s like engaging four-wheel drive. What is it about snow that gets us excited? It’s sufficiently rare here, I suppose, but it also adds another dimension to the landscape, turns the familiar into an adventure, and there’s the lovely way it paints blown-out highlights on bare trees. Then there’s the cold, and the feeling of aliveness as we warm up through our exertions in the sharp air.

The Ravine, Rivington Terraced Gardens

During the summer, the terraced garden volunteers had been working on clearing more of the Ravine, and it’s astonishing, the details they’ve uncovered – pools and runnels that have lain hidden for a century. We try a few shots here, but nothing really grabs us. It needs lots of tumbling water, so, we’ll be back after heavy rains. What we’re really anticipating as we climb, is a picture of the Pike, under snow. Along the way we note the old building that was once a public lavatory (abandoned for years as a vandalised abomination) is now re-purposed as a café, which explains the trail of discarded paper cups I’ve been following on the way up.

A glorious day, yes, and one to be enjoyed, but now and then I can’t help fretting over the various trials of my offspring, as they attempt to gain a foothold in the world. Number one son, recently moved out, has been awaiting an Internet connection for a month, and is no nearer a resolution even though he’s already paid for a month’s service – that he’s required to work from home is impacting his job, so he commutes to my place and occupies my study. And number two son, mortgaged to the eyeballs in a two bed starter home, has just found out he needs a new roof, though the survey said everything was just fine. I’m realising parenthood is for life. You never stop worrying, be they five or twenty-five. Indeed, the older they get, the worse it is, because you know you have to close your eyes, let them go, and get on with it.

There are other young men having a fine old time, here, sledging down the Pike. I wonder why they are not at work, or if the world has changed so much, I was a fool to keep going until the age of sixty, that for all those years, there were people half my age having a Beano on the Pike. I don’t know what the secret is, but do not begrudge their obvious fun. I’m only puzzled as to why it took me so long to wise up.

Rivington Pike, Winter 2022

The snow is deeper here as we reach the high point of the walk, at around 1200 ft. The crampons loosen as the boots warm up. A shake of the foot reveals the problem. Tighten the strap and on we go. We walk a little way along the path to Noon Hill, so we can shoot the Pike under snow with a starburst of sun. I wonder briefly then about carrying on to Noon Hill, across the open moor, but that’s a tougher walk than I fancy today, so we stick to plan A, come back to the Pigeon Tower, then down through the terraced gardens.

Pigeon Tower, Rivington, Winter 2022

There are mega-buck four-wheel drives – kings for a day – on the Higher House carpark, which suggests they ignored the road-closed signs on Sheephouse Lane. The road here is like glass, and nearly as hard, but the spikes keep us upright and enable steady progress to Wilcocks, along what resembles, in places, a river of ice. Then we cut for home, along the top of Dean Wood. There’s nothing like the feel of those spikes biting, and they keep you firm in places where you’d ordinairly not be able to stand up! No, now is not the time for a broken leg and A+E.

Then I’m thinking back ten years, to a night in Preston Royal. The ward was like a war zone, the staff clearly knackered, yet kind, and the surgeon with a face that betrayed the weight of the world on his shoulders, and my mother discharged into the dead of night, to die of inoperable cancer. I’d hoped they might let her rest until morning, but they needed that bed for someone they’d a chance of saving. And so it goes.

It’s fine if you’re fit and healthy, but at some point we all need care, even if it’s only for the final few weeks, to see us out. So, for pity’s sake, fellow Brits, wake up. Don’t let’s go the way where a health emergency costs us our house and our life’s savings, and our children their house, and their life savings too, and all so an already rich man, lacking in self consciousness and shame, can indulge his whim for an ocean going yacht, or a doomsday bunker in New Zealand. Don’t let me carry that one into my next novel. I’m looking for the off-ramp into the bliss of Zen, not back into the mire of class warfare.

Dean Wood Avenue

A little after two now, and the sun is creeping low. It’s dead ahead as we walk this avenue of ancient chestnuts, now – such a beautiful stretch, filled with memories of hunting conkers with my children. Pockets full, and still plenty left for all comers, and the squirrels too. I wonder at how quickly the time has flown, and how little of it we have to enjoy the company of our children – though I also recall it doesn’t always feel like that when you’re in the thick of it. Though my boys have left home now, I still collect a few conkers in passing, come the season, just for the sentiment. Anyway, the light is dreamy now, so we chance a shot – late day, winter ambiance – and then again as we walk the brookside path towards Church Meadows.

Towards the Church Meadows, Rivington

Then we’re back to Rivington, and the car, and peeling off the boots. This is such a small beat, and I’ve known it all my life, but it keeps on giving. Whatever bit of green is your part of the world, you will never know any other so well, and so intimately. And that’s a gift.

Now the temperature’s falling, and we’re looking at another sub-zero night, but the Met office says rain and ten degrees come weekend. We have to enjoy these things while we can.

Keep safe.

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Drinkwater’s Farm – December 2022

Lunch today is chicken and mushroom soup, and a seeded roll. Our venue is the ruin of Drinkwater’s farm, third sycamore from the left. It is my favourite table, shared, no doubt, with many others, but not today. Today we have the ruins, indeed, so far, the moor all to ourselves.

We’ve come up from Brinscall’s Lodge Bank, which is a long-winded way of doing it, but it makes for a more attractive walk along the Goit valley than the direct ascent from White Coppice. The wooded section, along the Goit, is mostly winter-bare now, just the occasional beech aflame in red and orange, against a background of misty, mysterious gloom.

On the way up, I spied turkeys under makeshift cover, as protection from avian flu, which is hitting Lancashire pretty hard at the moment. There will be a shortage of the birds come Christmas, just as there is already a shortage of eggs. More worrying, though, is the ongoing devastation to the wild bird population. Although naturally occurring among birds, the severity of this outbreak is pointing to our abuse of the natural world, in particular the factory farming of birds, and a wider breakdown of our ecosystems.

Anyway, we’re looking for winter colour today, looking for compositions along routes I must have scoured with the camera countless times. But there’s always something new – a different light, a different angle, a different mood. The bright-eyed holly is in berry now, and the gorse – somewhat confused – is half asleep for winter, yet also half flowering for spring. The bracken, sometimes reaching seven feet high in summer, has now died back to piles of rusty straw, and the mosses, and lichens are a lively green. But it’s mostly the shapes of trees that fascinate at this time of year. Shorn of foliage, their limbs twist and twine, gesturing like dancers in expressive pose.

From the Brinscall woods, we came up by way of the track from the ruins of Goose Green farm, a place that used to double as the Green Goose, being licensed in olden times to sell ale to farmers. What yarns must have been shared in that place, now just an outline of stones in the swelling earth. This sinewy path runs south, is modestly elevated along the line of the Brinscall fault and punctuated by gnarled trees, some of which have now fallen. One of the last before White Coppice took our eye as its limbs, coiled and bent, indicated the way.

Goit Valley – White Coppice

Then it was the moor, more shades of rust, and silent under a uniform blue grey sky. Out across the plain, to the west, there was the dense line of an atmospheric inversion, but the plain itself was mostly clear. It’s a grey day, rather cold, a fine rain blowing in from the east. At the ruins of Coppice Stile house, just a featureless tumulus of rubble, now, we tried to do justice to the wizened old thorn tree. A shy sun peeped through momentarily and helped lend some contrast. I seem to be visiting familiar trees more often than I do summits these days.

Thorn Tree, Coppice Stile

Then it was on to Drinkwaters, to the sycamores, and lunch. Great Hill is tempting, and it feels wrong to skip it, but we’ll leave that for another time. The days are short now, time pressing, and I am sticking to my resolve not to be on the road after lighting up time. The higher set LED headlights on SUV’s have long been painful and blinding to me, and to many others, according to reports. And most cars these days seem to be of the SUV variety. The only solution, I suppose, is to get an SUV myself.

“Excuse me. Is that the Round loaf, over there?”

A passing walker. We hill types are none of us really strangers to one another, and gel at once when in our natural environment. The Round Loaf – a huge Bronze Age burial, is prominent on the skyline. The guy is interested in routes, is not familiar with the Western Pennines, but is keen to find his way around its antiquities. There are routes from this side, but vague, and prone to bog. We discuss options. He will try from the Rivington side, another time, from where the going is easier. We discover a shared interest in the lost farms, as named on the early OS maps. Then he’s on his way, up Great Hill, most likely never to be met again.

Great Hill

I take photographs, wide angle to soak up what little light there is, now. I never know what the camera has got, and can spend many a pleasant hour, afterwards, post-processing in the digital darkroom, teasing out what I thought I saw, or revelling in what the camera saw, and I did not. Drinkwater’s is effortlessly photogenic whatever the season, or the weather.

We begin our return to Brinscall along the track by Brown Hill, noting the line of shooting butts as we go, these having been cobbled together from the remains of drystone walls. There were dubious claims from the shooting fraternity, earlier in the year, that avian flu had not been detected in game birds, so there was no need, they said, to curtail their usual post Glorious 12th jamboree. But the situation overtook them and, with a little unexpected help from BREXIT many shoots were indeed called off.

Shooting butt, Brinscall Moor

We pick up the terminus of Well Lane, a short but steep drive up from Brinscall. There are always a few cars here, people mostly emptying their dogs on the moor. A short detour brings us to Ratten Clough, which has the distinction of being the best preserved of the lost farms, and a moody place at the best of times. But, unlike Drinkwater’s, I always struggle to get a good composition here. We prowl around for a bit, try some shots, but nothing has a definite tingle to it. It doesn’t matter, it’s just good to be out, and feeling warm, even on a cold day like this. It also saves on heating the house.

Ratten Clough, Brinscall Moor

December 2022, and coming up on two years retired, now. I remember what it was I used to do for a living, but haven’t a clue how I did it any more. It was remarkably easy to let it all go. Writing, reading, walking, photography – these are much better ways to spend one’s time.

So now it’s down through the Brinscall woods again, to connect with the Lodge Bank, and the car. Boots off, and a cup of tea before we make the drive home. There’s an ancient duck comes to say hello, a long time resident, scrounging for seed. I hope it avoids the flu.

Five miles round, and around 650 feet of ascent.

https://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=14/53.6729/-2.5632&layers=C

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A wet week looks like having us confined mostly to barracks. Since the youngest flew the nest, last year, I have acquired a study. It has a view of the garden, and beyond, to a once grand ash tree, now beginning to die back. We resist the obvious metaphor, focus instead on the stripes of the lawn, and the remaining splashes of colour among the heleniums.

I’m thinking about something that happened a long time ago. It was a moment of transcendence, I think, one in which there was no difference between who I was, and what I was looking at. That I happened to be looking at Scope End, a shapely cone of a mountain in the Newlands Valley, made this a very grand experience indeed. And whether it was a genuine taste of oneness, as the Buddhists would have it, or just a bit of a funny do, is largely irrelevant at this stage. I’m inclined towards the former, since it has remained fresh in memory all these years, and has driven a lot of creative efforts in mystical directions, though I readily accept the possibility of the latter.

It’s hard to imagine everything we see as being made of atoms: the lawn, the heleniums, and the old ash tree. We know it to be so, thanks to the elementary science we learned at school, but we still tend not to think of things that way. To do so would lend the world a layer of complication we can manage perfectly well without, day to day. Atoms are mostly space, yet the world looks solid. Go down another level, and atoms are made of smaller particles. Then again, these smaller particles are made from even smaller particles, none of which are actually particles, but more like twists of energy, vibrating in what is called the Unified Field. The field is a thing beyond which there is nothing, because it is nothing, yet it gives rise to the world, to the universe of appearances.

It’s also here, while conducting science at this subatomic level, the consciousness of the observer has an effect on what manifests, on that which is observed, which leads to speculation that the unified field – if not in itself actually aware – is the ground from which even consciousness arises. All of this is simply to say that when I am looking at the ash tree, my relationship to it is more complicated than surface appearances, and certainly more complicated than I am ordinarily aware.

All of this, the last hundred years or so of scientific thinking finds itself converging on the Vedic tradition, which speaks also of a fundamental ground of being, an emptiness, a nothingness, a formlessness, timeless and infinite, from which all things arise. And the tradition holds that this state can be experienced directly, either by diligence in the practice of meditation, or you can even sometimes fall into it by accident.

In my case, the accident occurred at the tail end of a long and very beautiful walk in the mountains, some time around the millennium. It probably lasted only the length of time it takes for the raising of a foot, as I walked, and the placing of it down again, but, internally, the experience was much more expansive, and timeless. It posed many questions, of course, and the subsequent search for answers became a considerable part of my leisure time thinking, thereafter, a search for which one feels poorly equipped, bound as one is by the nine to five-ness of ordinary, suburban circumstances.

Scope End, June 2005

Although I have speculated on it before, a firmer link between Vedic – also to some degree Buddhist – philosophy and the Unified Field of contemporary physics came to me only recently while revisiting some old notes on Transcendentalism – Transcendent meaning a direct experience of the ground of being, or the divine, or however you want to put it. I first heard the term, long ago, when a work’s doctor was interviewing me, after I’d fainted. I was a manufacturing apprentice, and my mate had injured his finger on a machine. He swore, and I fainted. I came round in a sweat, the doc pronounced me fit, told me to get back out on the shop and then, as if he had peered into my soul, added that I’d probably benefit from some form of Transcendental Meditation. It was perhaps the single most sage piece of advice I was ever given, but I ignored it.

And just as well I did, because the “official” Transcendental Meditation (TM) would have been beyond my means. Even if I’d found a teacher, TM costs you serious money, and I’d a long way to go before I was ready, or desperate enough to take any form of meditation seriously, but especially one where they asked you for money. Now, I’ve no reason to doubt TM is as effective as they say it is – even though most of those saying it are celebrities who can well afford it – but there are plenty of other forms you can learn from books, or from inexpensive church hall classes, if you want to give it a go.

As for TM in particular, it’s a technique defined by the use of a mantra, a meaningless word that has a certain resonance in the mind as it is silently repeated. In the official TM that mantra is a secret – specific to you – given to you by your teacher and never to be shared. Naturally, this raises some sceptical eyebrows. Personally, I think you could find your own mantra, and that will do just as well.

I’ve used meditation – though not TM – as a means of controlling stress and anxiety, mostly work related, and found it effective, but it never took me back to that moment in the mountains. Then again, I don’t meditate very often these days, and I’m not sure I want, or need, to go back to that moment anyway, because it raised more questions than I can ever answer, at least in this lifetime. But I’m grateful for the glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, if indeed that’s what it was. It’s certainly gifted me plenty of speculative avenues to explore over the years, and the mind has enjoyed toying with them in my various fictional writings.

It’s deeply strange to look at a mountain and have one’s consciousness expand until one is both oneself, and the mountain. That’s too clumsy a way of putting it. Perhaps a better way is to say the unified field contains both the manifestation of the mountain, and one’s own consciousness, and that, for a moment, one attains a glimpse of both, from some higher perspective.

Of course the ego resists even this one small concession, that while it might be possible this is the way it really is, Ego denies any certainty of belief, that beyond granting the world is indeed a beautiful place, and at times hauntingly so, it would sooner take anchor in a materiality we know full well to be a serious simplification of the way things truly are.

And now, after all of that, the sun is shining, so we’ll slip out for a walk, while the going is good, and I’ll leave you in the company of David Lynch (Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) who I think explains it very well.

Thanks for listening

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From Peewit Hall, Anglezarke Moor

Exploring meaning, purpose, and our freedom to choose.

After a couple of cold, squally days, the weather clears, and we venture outdoors. There is no plan so, as is usual under such circumstances, the car delivers us seemingly of its own accord to Anglezarke’s Yarrow Reservoir, where we find ourselves parking along the Parson’s Bullough road. The trees here are showing their first signs of turning, and the waters of the Yarrow are a cobalt blue, sunbeams sparkling between crisping foliage. There is speculation this year’s drought will gift us, by way of apology and compensation, some spectacular autumn colours. I’m looking forward to it.

It’s been an eventful week. My nest-egg investments dropped five percent overnight. Meanwhile, company pension schemes find themselves a heartbeat from implosion, as the long term bond market collapses. All this following last Fridays’ inoffensively titled “Fiscal Event”. It’s had me considering what kind of employment I would be fit for now, after enjoying barely two years of retirement. Will I have to go grovelling back, after quitting the day job in such a fit of giddy joy?

By the Yarrow on the Parson’s Bullough Road

Paul Donovan, chief economist of UBS Global Wealth Management, likens present UK governance as resembling a Doomsday Cult. I find it hard to disagree. The PM and Chancellor meanwhile hold to the line that it’s all part of a cunning plan, one no one else has thought to try. We can only hope they are right.

Anyway, I’m glad I took the plunge and finally bought those new walking boots I’ve been banging on about, and a fresh walking jacket as well – just for the hell of it – as I might not have felt like it later on when I was browsing the job adverts. Today, though, we leave the new boots behind, having decided to walk our old ones to destruction. But we pack the jacket, because it’s half the weight of my other, and weight is everything to the walker approaching his autumn years.

We have a mostly clear sky, but with some isolated, dramatic clouds, and a bank of something more solidly changeable, coming up from the south. The latter needs keeping an eye on, but we should be fine for a couple of hours.

We take the path, still in warm sunshine, towards Jepsons, and across Twitch Hills Clough. The levelled ruin of Peewit Hall is always the first stop. The view from here is too good to rush, not only the whole of west Lancashire laid out from hill to sea, but the broader arc from Wales to Cumbria. After feasting on it through binoculars, we plod on, still with no objective in mind, meeting a few other walkers, mostly old timers, who all seem buoyed by the day, and cheerful in their greetings. Such pleasantness is infectious. The legs carry us up Lead Mine’s Clough, past the falls, and the site of James Yates’ Well. We seem to be heading for the moor, then, more specifically the Round Loaf, a remote Bronze Age burial mound.

The Round Loaf, Anglezarke Moor

The moor is heavy underfoot, splashing wet, and bog-shaky in the usual places. The heather is in abundance, but of a washed-out mauve, like last year’s colours left too long in the rain. I’d thought it was done for after the drought, but there are isolated patches showing the more vivid purple, so perhaps another few weeks will see the moors carpeted in glory as usual. We’ll be back to check. Expect a moorland scene with heather, all in unashamedly overcooked HDR, enough to make your eyes ache!

Sometimes there’s a cairn on the Round Loaf, sometimes not, and if there is, it varies in size from one visit to the next. The biggest I ever saw it, it was topped off by a sheep’s skull, and a sobering reminder that some neo-pagans embrace the diabolical. No skull today, though, but there are the usual dizzying views of moor and plain, and a choice of paths radiating at all points of the compass: Black Brook, Great Hill, Black Hill, Devil’s Ditch, Lead Mine’s Clough, Hurst Hill; take your pick,….

We choose Hurst Hill on a whim, just 1038 ft, but high enough to be several degrees cooler than when we started out. It’s a cold day up here, then, all the more noticeable after such a perpetually hot summer. Then the banked cloud swallows the sun, and the nature of the day changes. It’s another splashy path, but the boots are holding out, and the socks are still miraculously dry. There’s a more substantial cairn on top of Hurst Hill, and a persistently chill wind. A zippered fleece is of a sudden insufficient, so we delve in the bag for the new jacket. It cuts the wind in its tracks, allows us to settle, oblivious to the elements, and enjoy our soup.

On Hurst Hill

Serious though they are, I’m sure I’m over-thinking Albion’s woes when I imagine even my pension cheques drying up, and investments tanking, like they did in 1929. Still, an interest rate hike would see both my kids at risk of losing their newly acquired footing on the housing market, just so millionaires can pay less tax, and that would vex me enormously. But for the sake of argument, how does a man face his future when the future he imagined no longer exists?

It’s no coincidence I’m reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning” at the moment. His thesis is that a sense of meaning and purpose is essential to our well-being. This runs counter to prevailing existentialist, post-modern teachings which tell us there is no meaning, that we suffer, and we do so pointlessly. But once we subscribe to such a view we lose sight of the future, relinquish all sense of meaning, become dehumanised, suffer all the more and without respite. This is the malaise of the western world, and it’s killing us.

Frankl’s views were formed during his time in the Nazi concentration camps. In such hellish places, a man was stripped of everything, until all he had left to lose was his fragile hold on life. Frankl’s observations of his fellow captives, condemned to being literally worked to death, led him to conclude those who retained a sense of personal meaning, in spite of everything, tended to survive longer, even though they might have appeared physically less able than their friends.

Meaning may well be denied both its existence and its validity in the life of a modern man, but the experience of such extremes of suffering teaches us it remains essential for well-being, even survival. It has often struck me how many of my former colleagues were so deeply invested in the working life, they cultivated no hobbies, no interests beyond the office, then fared poorly in retirement. No longer the “big man” but just another grey old fart, pushing a trolley around Tescos, they longed to be taken back.

Do we define ourselves, our purpose, by our means of earning a living? By the badge we wear? It’s possible, even productive to do so, for a time, but there also comes a time when there has to be a transition to something new. Purpose and meaning must evolve as our circumstances change. This is easier for creative types, for they shall always have their art, unless they become too invested in the idea of making a success of it, in which case, they’re sunk.

The problem facing many of us in these strange times, times in which a permanent sense of crisis seems to hold sway, is the inability to live for the future, or even to aim at a specific goal, since the future is rendered opaque. Frankl called this living a provisional existence, a loss of faith in one’s future. To live well, one must live with some sense of purpose, be it big or small, and to transition as needs must from one to the next like stepping stones to lead us on through life. But the sense of purpose, of meaning is not a thing bestowed upon us, more it is a thing we are invited to cultivate internally, in order to animate and enliven our world.

Manor House Farm, Anglezarke

For now my purpose is to find my way off this hill, follow the line of the old lead mines, touch base with a few familiar points along the way, and then, over the coming evenings, weave the whole of it, the financial crisis, Victor Frankl’s book, and this walk over Anglezarke moor, into a coherent narrative – hopefully without the stretch marks showing too much. The way leads us past the Manor House farm, where chestnuts litter the wayside. We pick one up, savour the smooth oiled sheen of it, and pocket it for good luck. Always something magical, I think, about freshly fallen chestnuts.

By Jepsons Farm, Anglezarke

One of my familiar waypoints is the stone that overlooks Jepson’s farm. I have this idea that many megalithic features were hidden in the construction of the dry stone walls, some of these latter dating from medieval times. The walls are tumbling now, and the calling cards from an earlier age are revealing themselves. Sometimes, if you have a sharp eye, you can spot them, still buried in the walls. They bear the marks of millennia of weathering, rather than mere centuries. I may be wrong in this, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t intend making a theory of it in order to convince others. It’s the interest alone, the observation, the connection, the speculation that, in this moment, is purpose in itself.

A stone in the wall, near Jepson’s Farm, Anglezarke

Another thing Frankl wrote that deeply impressed me was to the effect that a man could be deprived of every freedom, and every thing in his life, including his loved ones, and even his name. Yet he would still retain the choice of what attitude to bring to the shouldering of his burden. I hesitate to paraphrase such a powerful idea, born as it was in such a terrible darkness of suffering, but it reminds us we are all free to choose at least our inner path, no matter the nature of the constraints imposed upon us by the external world.

It’s late afternoon when we come back to the Yarrow, and the car. We’re still hours before sunset, but already seem to be losing the light. By the time we make it home, it’s raining.

Thanks for listening

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The falls on Stepback Brook

It’s a beautiful, mid-September morning. We reverse the little blue car from the garage, and let the top warm in the sun. It folds down easier when it’s warm, and I’m trying to spare it from further cracking. It’s a little frayed around the edges now, and not surprising at twenty years old, but still keeping the water out, so I’m in no hurry to replace it. We fold it back gently, flip the baffle plate, to keep the wind from sneaking up behind our backs, and make ready for the off. Every warm day from now is a bonus, and possibly the last we can get out with the top down, and enjoy the air.

I’ve wasted half the morning trying to load music onto my phone because I want to avoid the radio, but it’s a new phone and I can’t make head nor tail of it, so we’ll make do with the company of our thoughts as we drive instead. It’s a short run today, over the moors to the Royal, at Ryal Fold. It’s cool on the road, but pleasantly so with the heater on just a touch. Of the ongoing national mourning, there’s not much in evidence en-route, a few pubs with flags at half-mast. It’s a different story in the Capital, of course, with all-night queues for the lying in state, and extra trains for the influx of tourists.

The King meanwhile courts an occasional bad press for being grumpy. This is from both the political left and right, and both the royalist and the republican media. Memes are spreading across the Internet, some humorous, some spiteful. This seems to hint at the nature of the future relationship. Meanwhile, dissenters are being arrested. Even holding up a blank piece of paper will get you nabbed.

One broadcaster mistakes a crowd protesting the killing of a young black man by the Met, believing them instead to be well-wishers. It must be difficult trying to keep the commentary up for so long, when not everyone is following the same script.

Anyway, the car park at the Royal is busy, lots of people sitting out in the sunshine, enjoying an early lunch, but the Union Jacks are absent. There is an intoxicating scent of cooking and coffee, mingled with the moorland air. The plan is a circular walk to Darwen Tower, as I have it on reliable authority it is definitely open now after its years’ long refurbishment.

We follow the route up Stepback Brook to Lyon’s Den. There’s been rain recently, and the brook is musical, the little wayside fall running nicely, a generous and shapely mare’s tail. So we sneak down into the dell and try a shot or two, but we’re shooting into the sun, and the lens is flaring awkwardly. We’ll be lucky to salvage anything from it, but no one’s counting, and it’s always fun trying. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the day, and to be out in it, and looking at it the right way round.

Eighteen months retired now, and I’m still not sure if I can call it real, not sure if I’m making the best use of the time I’ve been waiting for so long to enjoy. I’m still aware of time ticking down, but now the deadline is not the Devil dragging me back to work on Mondays. It’s something more final, numbered perhaps in summers, and it needs to be overcome, for the sense of pressing time is the Devil itself.

Climbing the track to Lyon’s Den, we spy a note pinned to the fence. Someone is expressing thanks to the kind soul who found their photographs (we presume on a memory card, or something). We sometimes don’t appreciate how much stuff we have on these things, that their loss would be devastating to us. It is a random act of kindness, then, and a reciprocal gesture of appreciation. The finder gains nothing, materially, seeks no reward. It was a rationally meaningless act, then, yet also the act of any decent human being.

Lunch is served on the bench by the little copse above Lyon’s Den. The view from here is breathtaking. The cooler air of these September days cuts the haze, and jacks the clarity dial up to infinity. The Dales are so clear, it’s as if we could walk to them in five minute, the Cumbrian Mountains, too. Closer to hand is Bowland and Pendle, barely a stone’s throw.

An old timer comes ambling slowly by, trailing a pair of ancient Irish Wolf Hounds. They have the scent of my lunch, and are curious. He’s a pleasant soul, bids me good morning, gently tugs his giant creatures onwards, in the direction of the tower. There’s an air of ease, of gentleness to the day. The tower stands out, way across the moor, a Dan Dare rocket-ship, poised for take-off.

Darwen Tower – Yorkshire Dales beyond

So, a random act of kindness – finding a memory card in the mud, and placing it where the owner might find it, should they come looking. The simple goodness of that act has extended beyond returning those treasured photographs to a grateful owner. It has coloured the morning like a charm. It ripples out in time and space.

I have spent a long time on the trail of something “other”. Those more well travelled say it’s a journey that ends with the realisation there is no “other”. I think I know what that means, now. It grants a certain degree of shape to the cosmos that makes more sense, though it actually has no shape, beyond what we grant it, that subject and object are the same thing.

But the journey is like a long breathing in. And if you hold your breath long enough you get to the point of bliss, and it seems many travellers make do with that, sit on their cushions with their scented candles, and their singing bowls, lost in the emptiness. But you need to breathe out too, and that means bringing something back into the world, a world where there’s so much suffering it’s almost impossible to get anything done, and where nothing makes sense without these random acts of kindness.

But like the breathing in, we make a meal of it, and it turns out to be much simpler if we can only look at things the right way. I’m hoping it’s the same breathing out, breathing something back into the world, that it’s no more than a question of doing the good that you know, as it arises. But it’s a good that must come from an intelligence of the heart, which in turn comes from that journey to the realisation there is no other.

The finder of those photographs felt their loss, because it was they who lost them, they who also felt the joy of their return. I know I’m not making much sense, but it doesn’t matter. The message is in this mellow air, and in the ripples coming out from that little note, the lost, the found, and the random act of kindness.

Darwen Tower

We arrive at the tower to find it is indeed open, and looking in fine fettle after its long refurbishment. I venture inside a little way, take the spiral staircase to the lower balcony. The sun is very bright now and, entering the gloom, I find my old eyes are slow to adapt to the dark these days, so I’m fumbling for the steps with my toes. I’d get there eventually, but don’t feel confident in climbing to the top. The lower balcony will do, and in itself is a stupendous viewpoint.

There are two stories about the origins of the tower. One is that it was built to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria. But there is another story, one about land ownership, and the public’s rights of access to it. Once upon a time, I would not have been able to walk, as I’ve walked today. It would have been an insane trespass, and I would have been seen off by gamekeepers in the employ of an absentee landlord. But it was courageous acts of trespass, defiance, and an ensuing legal battle that opened the ways over Darwen Moor to everyone, and that’s what the tower celebrates. The intelligence of the heart says it was a good thing, securing freedoms we continue to enjoy today. But that is not to say our freedoms cannot once again be lost.

Darwen Moor

Thanks for listening.

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The Stocks Reservoir

I play back the dashcam footage of the hill climb from Waddington, up the fell, past the ancient Walloper Well. For a time, all you can see is the road in front of you, but then it opens out, and the Forest of Bowland is arrayed like a revelation of paradise. There should be music. Vaugh Williams’ – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis would be perfect.

But the disjoint between the all seeing mind’s eye, and that cold, wide-lensed, dashcam evidence, is too great. The hills look distant and underwhelming. I made a movie of it anyway and posted it with some bouncy music that isn’t exactly Vaughn Williams. You have to drive it, really. There’s no other way to appreciate it. If you imagine it, you’ll be closer to the reality. Imagine it in a little blue car, with the top down, and the sky and light, and the scent of the moor, and the sound of birds, and you’ll be closer still.

This is one of the most beautiful roads. It takes you from the roaring ribbon of the Liverpool to York A59, and leads you through some of Lancashire’s most remote and beautiful places. Today it takes us through the still relatively thriving little town of Clitheroe, over the fell, to the Gisburn Forest, and finally the Stock’s reservoir.

Unlike the car, I’m not firing on all cylinders. I’ve had mild stomach cramps for days, also a lack of energy that’s had me nodding off in the afternoons. I’m negative for Covid, which is a plus, but whatever kind of bug it is doesn’t help. Perhaps I shouldn’t have come out but, even when you’re retired, you find some days are taken up by routine, and then you’re watching the weather forecast for the best day. It was today, or put it off until next week, and next week I have other walks planned. So here we are.

The plan is for a simple circuit of the Stocks Reservoir. It’s a popular route. The forest is also a favourite destination for cyclists, there being a multiplicity of trails here, and I did wonder if we’d struggle to park, but we arrive late morning, and all is quiet. I’ve only been able to scrape together sufficient coin for one ticket machine, which is disappointing, as I’d also wanted to park in Slaidburn, later, on the way back, for coffee. We’re in luck, though, the ticket machine here is broken. Coffee is definitely on.

Stocks Reservoir July 2022

That said, it’s not the best of days for visiting. Reservoirs are attractive when they’re swelled up with winter rains, and fully reflective of the light, but by late summer most of that has gone, and you’re left with an ugly tide line, and threats of hose-pipe bans. Judging by how low the Stocks is today, we’re not far from rationing. This is my first time in the Gisburn forest and I have the sense of having missed out. I’ll be back in the autumn, when colours will be awesome.

So, we set the route on the GPS app, and while I’m fiddling with it, Google sends me a message wanting to back up more of my phone to “the cloud”. It assures me it’s doing me a favour, that it makes things easier when you change your phone, which is true, but I’m not stupid. I give it permission anyway. They snoop on our stuff, whether we like it or not.

We don’t actually need the aid of any fancy navigation tools here. The route is well-marked, along good paths, right from the car-park, so there’s little chance of going astray. Summer is in full flush and bursting with fruit. There are wild raspberries growing in profusion, which slows progress with a little foraging by my companion for the day: number two son. I’m mindful of my naggy stomach, and manage to exercise restraint, though he declares them mouthwatering.

My head is already swimming with the heat, and the humidity. Cloud cover is more or less total, and slow moving, but with dramatic texture, and colour variation. The fells around are rendered flat and green, just the occasional pool of soft light to brighten them. There is no air. Every shot I take with the camera is off somehow. Better just plod my way round while thinking of coffee in Slaidburn, and trying not to think how empty the reservoir is.

It’s tempting to read the emptiness in a metaphorical way, possibly encouraged by my spirits, which are flattened by this bug. A broad splash of sparkling water would certainly add an attractive focus for the day. But everything about it speaks of something tired and drained. The bits of shore we can get near to, are parched, dusty and post apocalyptic. We could pile the metaphors on and say the surrounding fells are timeless, beautiful, the light ethereal, while the reservoir, man-made, is wanting and reflective of the parlous state of Albion’s future. But that’s nihilism, and if I were feeling any better, I’d say we’re all doing our best under trying circumstances, though without competent leadership. It’s possible to still be positive, but requires taking a complex position, one somewhat removed.

In the I Ching or Book of Changes, there’s a hexagram which has the image of a lake, and clouds rising over it, and it says: “the clouds rise, but no rain falls”. It’s about anticipation, and waiting on the rains, waiting for deliverance. In the meantime, there’s nothing you can do. It’s all in the hands of the gods, and we do better to spend time improving ourselves, than beating our chests over what we think is lacking in the external world.

And for me, the biggest lack is energy. At over seven miles for the circuit, I find it a long walk, and I’m very glad to return to the car. Then it’s a short drive, back to Slaidburn for coffee. Slaidburn is one of my happy places. I’d bring the kids here when they were little, and we’d picnic on the green, feed the ducks. Number two son remembers it, but vaguely. To me, it’s clear as yesterday.

We park next to a newer model of the little blue car, and admire its lines. A lady sitting out by the green with coffee says the car is hers, and how she used to have one just like mine, and how much she loved it, but it rotted away, so she got a new one. I’ve had lots of conversations like that over the years, with fellow enthusiasts, though the thought of mine rotting away does not improve my lack of spirits, having just spent a fortune on doing her up, and thinking she was looking pretty good.

Though I’m still tired and off-song, I sense something of a blessing in the afternoon, as I sit out under a now glowering sky. A deep English summer, gloomy holiday weather,… a sense of peace, a sense of anticipation too, perhaps, as the other clientele of the little café chat quietly. One man has come off the M6 at Lancaster and is working his way slowly through Bowland, looking to rejoin the M6 at the Tickled Trout. There was heavy traffic, and hold-ups, he said, and though he’d probably have been quicker sticking to the motorway, he wouldn’t be the first to have taken a detour through Bowland and arrived home late, but all the better for it.

There’s a hint of fine drizzle now, a faint but blessed cooling. There’s a movement of air, a sense of ease, and the coffee tastes like heaven. The lady with the car is moving off, and we return her parting wave. Nice car that. New fangled, of course, and I prefer the spartan technology of my own. I’m glad I did the walk, added it to the map in my head, the one Google doesn’t get to see, but if there’s a moment that drew me into the day, and made it worth the setting out, it’s this right now, sitting by the river, with coffee.

It’s coming up on worker’s home-time, and the roads are busy from Clitheroe. I’m thinking I do well to drive such an old car that’s still reliable enough to get me about, that the arm and a leg I spent on her bodywork was worth it. Then, as if to check my pride, we go hard into a roundabout and there’s a howl from the front nearside wheel. I’ve no idea what that is. It’s a wheel bearing maybe, or something wobbly with the disks. She likes to keep me on my toes, and the garage guessing. Looks like I’ll be leaving her at home next week, while I explore that one.

I’ll leave you with Vaughn Williams. He sums up the day, and all without a single word.

Thanks for listening.

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Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

Another posterior vitriol detachment, this one in the right eye, leaves me with a horseshoe shaped floater in centre vision to match the one in the left eye which appeared after a retinal firework display, a few years ago. I can’t blame this latest one on weeks of close work under the kosh of earning a living, so I must simply put it down to age. I mention this only as a metaphorical illustration of how one’s view of life can change suddenly, after a shift in the mode of vision.

Meanwhile, the horseshoes dance across the white of the computer screen, disrupting the flow. They have me closing my eyes from time to time, taking refuge in darkness, and in thought. Reading books is also suddenly tiresome as they drift across the text, obscuring it and causing it to ripple. I can still walk around and drive without interference. It’s focusing close that renders their presence more brutishly real, and I like to focus. The fresh one will fade a little over time, and having one in each eye has me hoping I’m done exploring posterior vitriol detachments forever. Then again, old age never comes alone. I’m looking at the next twenty years, and hoping my travelling companion into senescence will not be blindness.

We are never just the one thing. This struck me while reading of Ouspensky’s encounter with the magician Gurdjieff, in a Moscow Café in 1915. Gurdjieff – as near as I can understand him – describes people as automatic machines, reacting to inputs, and that they are never the same person, even two days in a row. He has a point. Reading back over the Rivendale Review, I have lost count of the number of people I am, or have been. While being a distinctly human characteristic, apparently, this is not a good thing when it comes to blogging.

Blogging, I’ve read, is about setting yourself up as just the one thing, as an expert at that thing, then readers know what to expect from you, and where to come for ideas. I suppose I’m off to a bad start in that respect, then, never having considered myself knowledgeable about anything, at least not to the level of expertise. Indeed, I’ve always fought shy of it, the level of expertise being where the shouting starts, as other experts vie for eminence. No, I’m far too reticent a character to set myself up as an expert.

I have written about tinnitus, which was once a defining thing for me, and, though all of that is old material, now, it’s still a piece that’s read a lot. However, those readers hoping to find more up-to-date material on the topic, will discover I am no longer that person at all. Of late, I am a writer of mostly local adventures in the English countryside, with occasional thoughts about writing.

Writing what? Well,… fiction and ,… stuff.

I have been a writer on spiritual matters, and still am occasionally, but spiritual seekers don’t know what to make of me, as the Rivendale Review is too eclectic to tune in regularly and expect things of a similar theme on a regular basis. One week I might be blundering through Advaita Vedanta, or Zen, and the next I am scrambling down a hillside to photograph an orchid, or setting up a camera to capture an interesting sky, talking about aperture and shutter speed and focal length because I like technical things as well.

And photographers, encountering such talk, might bookmark me, only to find me writing about the demise of Hen Harriers in the Forest of Bowland next. And bird people intrigued by those avian interests will then discover me uttering dark curses over the price of fuel and butter, as if I can make a difference. I have opined on politics, but no longer have the steam to make a thing of it. Political pundit, then, I no longer am.

I have written about Chinese martial arts, about traditional Chinese medicine, and its western medical correlates, but anyone looking for my current thoughts on the subject will be confused to find I am no longer that man at all. I have explored that world, found much in it that was good, absorbed it, made peace with it, and moved on. So yes, I am pretty well aware of the shortcomings of the Rivendale Review as it glides ever so slowly into deeper levels of obscurity. However, I find I cannot let it go, or change it to more closely resemble what I’m told a blog should be. That would not be me. The Rivendale Review, should be, is, and always will be – obscure.

Gurdjieff was saying this mechanical trait in people is unconscious. We do not know who we are at any particular time, and his route to awakening was a process of stopping the flow, and remembering. That I am writing about Gurdjeff illustrates only another person in me, a man who is interested in the history of ideas, and certainly not one who is a reliable expert on Gurdjieff. Next week I will be writing about something else entirely, while hopefully remembering all these different people inhabiting my psyche are connected by a single thread, and that it is the binding thread that is the important thing.

The world is just so awesomely big. There are two ways we can deal with its daunting dimensions. We can focus down on one thing, and ignore the rest. Or we can follow the ideas of the world wherever they lead. I think the world of ideas was meant to be explored, the universe itself being one’s personal guide with its whispers and its serendipitous segues. That in itself is a kind of stopping and remembering, that while we are indeed many people, knowing that to be the case, doesn’t put us far from the wrong path. While we are none of us anybody in particular, and none of us are actually going anywhere, it does not mean we should ignore the call to journey wherever the mind takes us, and to enjoy the scenery along the way.

The Rivendale Review is just an old-fashioned blog about nothing in particular. And if it must offer anything, I suppose I would like to think that someone reading about the various eccentricities of this one obscure life, might grant permission for other obscure lives to embrace their own eccentricities, and their obscurity too. We have all of us been many people, even in the same lifetime, and none of them are who we really are. Who we are, is the thread that binds them.

Thanks for listening

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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.

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I’m not sure if the author had any say in the cover design, or the title, of this book, both of which, to my mind, speak to a different audience to that perhaps intended. Talk of an afterlife is pretty much a taboo subject in polite secular, and even some religious circles. Those expressing belief in it are dismissed as naive, and in thrall to woolly minded thinking. Pastel shades, fluffy clouds, and soft focus apple blossom sums up the popular audience to whom such works as this might appeal. Those wishing for a more sober, scientifically minded approach might be put off, as indeed I was. Had it not been recommended by other trusted writers, I would have passed it by, and that would have been a pity because I think it makes a valuable contribution to the literature.

Many works on this subject deal with anecdotes of the near-death experience (NDE) itself, but, whilst interesting at one level, even compelling, such accounts lack intellectual impact, when taken in isolation. They require us to have faith in the bona fides of the teller, and actually do little to further our understanding of the phenomenon itself. And it is a phenomenon, one very much a part of the human experience, with reports going back to the beginning of recorded history, but more-so in recent years, as resuscitation techniques have improved to the point where we are reviving more and more people who, would once have died. And some of them are telling us strange stories.

Jens Amberts trained in philosophy, and is not an NDE experiencer himself. Philosophy strikes me as a subject in which nit-picking is honed to a fine art, and nit-pick, expertly, he does. In order to explore the subject, he sets up a thought experiment in which he likens the NDE to a sealed room into which people are chosen at random to enter, and explore its contents. They are not able to make recordings of what they find in the room, and must rely entirely on word of mouth in describing what they saw, to others, when they emerge.

Taken at its simplest then, the proposition is thus: how many people do we require, coming out of that room, and all reporting similar findings, for the people outside the room to believe those accounts to be the truth, given that some people are honest, while others are liars, fantasists, attention seekers, easily confused, and so on. Will it take a thousand? Tens of thousands? Millions? As the title suggests, Amberts concludes it is no longer philosophically, or even rationally, reasonable to doubt.

He points out four characteristics of the NDE supportive of the case for their authenticity:

One: in the entire history of the research we can pinpoint nothing, psychologically, sociologically or physiologically that will predict whether a person close to death is likely to have an NDE, or how deep that NDE will be. So, we don’t need to be sympathetic towards the idea, be religious, agnostic or atheist, in order to have one. It’s entirely random.

Two: Of those who have had an NDE, whether they were previously sceptical or not, the overwhelming majority are convinced their experience was indeed what it purported to be, i.e. a glimpse of some form of psychical continuation of life after death.

Three: Those reporting an NDE often describe the experience as “more real” than real life, in the same way that waking reality is more real than the dream state, that the NDE is an experience of being, of cognitive bandwidth, and sensory awareness, that is a quantum leap beyond anything previously known. Indeed, regaining ordinary consciousness after an NDE is likened to seeing the world in black and white, after having first seen it in colour.

And finally, four: We return to how common NDEs are, and the estimates are somewhere between 4 and 15% of the world’s population, or 320 million to 1.2 billion people, have reported an NDE. This means an awful lot of formerly rational, sceptical people are now convinced there is such a thing as an afterlife state, who would never have contemplated holding such a view before.

But for all of that I find myself still very much on the fence, at least as regards what it is we are seeing, exactly, in that room. But this is not to detract from the power of Amberts’ argument. It is more perhaps to illustrate, through my own doubts, the persistence of a perhaps defensive scepticism that will disregard even the strongest logic, and which also lies at the root of human experience.

What is not in any doubt is that something psychologically profound happens during an NDE, an experience that has, as yet, no rational physiological explanation, yet which has a deep and lasting effect on the psyche of the experiencer. What we don’t know, of course – should the experiencer not return to tell the tale – is does the NDE persist? Nor do we know if the 85 to 96% of those not reporting an NDE do so because they were denied entry through the Pearly Gates, and if so, the odds aren’t looking too good for the rest of us, no matter how well we conduct our lives, or swear allegiance to the various religious faiths who profess to be keepers of the gates.

The book was a fascinating, thought-provoking read, and Amberts’ argument will be of interest to believer and sceptic alike, also to students of philosophy who might have no interest in the subject one way or the other, but are looking for a case study in the diagnostic power of a thought experiment.

As the serious literature on this subject mounts, I find myself growing cautious of where the affirmative NDE arguments might lead, I mean socially and even politically. Indeed, it takes very little imagination to foresee societal structures emerging that will precipitate our departure for the next world on grounds purporting to be humane, whether we like it or not – and we don’t know anywhere near enough to be taking risks like that.

If it is true, it may be we’re not supposed to possess any certainty about it. Indeed, I suspect we may be psychologically predisposed to doubt, no matter how convincing the argument, be it religious or secular, and for our own good. Because, again, if it is true, we’re here because we have a contract to fulfil to our own being, and knowing for sure there’s a sure fire get-out clause, if things get tough, well,… that might defeat the whole point of us being here in the first place.

And if it isn’t true, well, it doesn’t matter anyway.

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