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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening

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Hot metal

In Martindale

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

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

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

Me, urgently: “Em, Mr Mooney?”

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

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

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

“Your overall’s on fire.”

“What? Oh,…”

Mr Mooney dances, and flaps his arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening.

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Dean Black Brook, White Coppice, Lancashire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening.

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The Wharfe, Langstrothdale, Yorkshire Dales

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

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

The George Inn, Hubberholme

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

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

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

Yockenthwaite, Langstrothdale

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

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

The Yockenthwaite Cricle

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

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

The Wharfe, Langstrothdale

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

Thanks for listening.

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On Spitler’s Edge

You catch up with me this afternoon, on Spitler’s Edge, in the Western Pennines. It sounds precipitous, like a mountain arête, but it’s not. That said, it’s still quite an airy aspect, in a dun coloured, tussocky, bog-cottony, sky-scraping, moorland sort of way. Indeed, the views are spectacular, from the hills of eastern Lancashire, to the west coast. Southwards, we have the porcupine ridge of Winter Hill, and its cluster of transmitters, while to the north we have Great Hill. The crossing from Great Hill to Winter Hill is always a treat, not to be underestimated in bad weather, but much easier now the route has been paved to spare erosion of the precious peat and bog habitat. The highpoint here is around 1286 feet.

I’ve not come over from Great Hill, though. I’ve come up by an unfamiliar path that snakes between Standing Stones Hill and Green Withins’ Brook. Early maps tell us there was always a track here, though aiming a little lower, for the coll, and the pass to High Shores, then down to Naylors. Naylors is a ruin now, and the current map shows the track petering out in the tussocks of Standing Stones. But there’s still a clear and well trod footway that carries on, though aiming more for the featureless summit of Redmond’s Edge.

It’s a hot day, down in the valley, with a dazzling, head-bursting sun. The sky is streaked with great fans of whispy, stratospheric clouds like white dendrites against the blue, and I’ve been photographing them with various foregrounds on the way up. There’s a cool wind on top, now, and a dusty taste to the air. The moors are ripe for burning, but so far so good, and the idiots have spared us their perennial pyromania. We’re a little later setting out, having waited in for the Tescos delivery man, so it’s getting on for tea time. The light is turning mellow, and a poem is gnawing at me, wanting me to remember it from way back.

I was crossing Spitler’s Edge,
With the sun touching the sea,
When a stranger on a dark horse,
From the distance came to me.

So I took myself aside a-ways,
To let the traveller pass,
And leaning on my staff, I paused,
Amid a sea of grass.

2002, I think. No strangers on dark horses today, though – just the occasional mountain-bike going hell for leather and with an air that suggests a supreme confidence I’ll be stepping aside for it. Although we’re in a post CROW access area, this isn’t a bridle way, so, strictly speaking, bikes have no place on the edge – walkers only. It could be worse, though. It could be motorcycles. You can’t police stuff like this, though. It relies on conscientiousness, hillcraft, and good manners.

So where was I? Standing amid a sea of grass? Okay,…

From there I watched the sky ablaze,
Above a darkening land,
Until I felt a chill and spied,
The stranger close at hand.

He stood upon the hillside,
While his horse about him grazed,
And with his eyes cast westwards,
On that same sunset he gazed,…

Yes, an old poem of mine, insisting on rhyme, at the risk of meter. It came out of an odd feeling, when crossing this way, late one evening, forty years ago. It was the antiquarian John Rawlinson, in his book “About Rivington” who wrote of the origins of the name “Spitler’s Edge,” it coming from the Knights Hospitaller’s of the Holy Order of St John, who had holdings in the district – this being in medieval times – and who, legend has it, would pass this way en route. So the guy I meet in the poem is a medieval warrior-monk. So what?

He wore a cloak of coarsest wool,
Around his shoulder’s broad,
And, across his back was slung,
I swear, the mightiest of swords.

But I did not fear the stranger,
When at length his gaze met mine,
For I knew we shared that hillside,
Across a gulf of time,…

And, speaking of time, the evening I’m thinking of was some time in the early eighties. I’d had a bad day at work, plus the realisation the girl I had the romantic hots for had the romantic hots for someone else – a colleague of mine, and a decent guy I was friendly with. So I’d driven up to Rivington, and set out to mull it over. And in mulling it over, I’d walked, and walked, and walked. Thinking about it now, I would have been better just walking home that night, which would certainly have made for a shorter walk, but I turned around and came back to Rivington over the edge, as the sun set.

It was a beautiful night, a perfect stillness across the moor, a faint mist rising after the heat of the day, and I was kept company by a long eared owl whose silent, broad winged flight was the most beautiful and eerie thing. All right, I didn’t actually meet a Knights Hospitaller, but if you believe in gaps in the fabric of space-time, that would have been an evening to encounter one. The walk did me good, cleared my head. There was no way I was going to fight over the girl, and I reckoned I had it in me to find a way of finally letting her go. As for the stranger,…

I nodded my slow greeting,
And he duly did the same,
Then he climbed upon his patient steed,
And ambled off again.

But turning back, he caught my eye,
Then slightly cocked his head,
And smiled to me a kindly smile:
“Fare thee well, pilgrim…” he said,..

Not as long a walk today, but then I’m forty years older, and I feel the miles differently. Just six miles round from the Yarrow Reservoir, to which we return with the sun sparkling upon it, and the oak trees of Parson’s Bullough, with their fresh leaves luminous against the blue. I still think about that girl from time to time. She’s still married to that guy and, in retrospect, she was always going to be happier with him, than she ever would have been with me. Sometimes it’s the ghosts, and the shadows who let us in on secrets like that, but you need a vivid imagination – a mind’s eye sort of thing – and the faith in it, even if it sometimes works backwards way, and is never any use to you at the time. Still, we get by.

Fare thee well, pilgrim, and thanks for listening.

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Oak tree, Peewit hall, Anglezarke

No two walks in the same territory, or even following the same route, are ever actually the same. It’s not necessary, therefore, to hanker after fresh ground all the time, though it is distinctly human to do so. I have walked this route up from Parson’s Bullough countless times, come over the pastures towards Twitch Hills and Jepsons, and passed beneath the two oaks that mark the line of the path to Peewit Hall.

I already know the photographs I’ll take, but though the physical perspectives are the same, there’s always a different mood by way of light and cloud. First shot then, the oak, looking towards Jepsons, with another oak on the skyline. The clouds are interesting today, but the camera will not capture them in one go. I suspect I can recover that dynamism though, using a particular software filter, and some artistic license. It comes out a bit gritty, a bit grungy, but I still like it.

For company, I have a wheatear. I think he’s a wheatear. I take a picture, then show it Google Lens, and it concurs. He’s flown in from Central Africa, where he spent the winter. I’ve never seen one before. He’s quite a dashing fellow, but doesn’t hang around to chat. I’m superstitious when it comes to birds. The lore is complex and tied up with personal stuff, but it’s a good omen for the day.

Wheatear, Anglezarke

I’m having fun with Google’s Lens app at the moment. When it first came out, I showed it my shoe. Its sophisticated, multi-billion dollar brain thought about it, then said it was a rabbit. Oh, how I laughed. But I’m not laughing now. Now I can point it at my shoe, and it will tell me where to buy another pair just like it. Or you can show it a picture of a bird or a wild flower, and it will tell you what it is.

We’re short of wild flowers today. The sheep have eaten everything, except, I note, the dandelions and the daisies. But I was in a scrap of woodland the other day and Google Lens put names to a greater diversity of flora. There were bluebells, mouse ear, red campion, garlic mustard (invasive alien), ramsons, lesser celandine, anemone and wood sorrel. I suppose at one time we would have learned these names from our countryman elders. But, apart from the more common weeds, I never did pick up the names of things, and am only now discovering the time, and the pleasure in doing so. Plus, countrymen elders are getting harder to find.

It seems a bit Victorian and reductionist, knowing the names of the bits of nature, like opening a watch and naming the components. But if it helps you find your way around the mechanism, you’re a good part of the way towards describing how it works. And how it works in my little scrap of woodland is that it supports a greater diversity of bugs. And then there are the things that feed on those bugs. Meanwhile, these pastures cover a hundred times the area, yet only sheep can thrive, and even then, they need the unremitting labours of man to keep them out of trouble. Nature does it all, it takes the whole impossibly complex diversity of the planet, in its stride.

It’s a beautiful prospect all the same, sterile though it is, this view from Peewit Hall – a small ruined farm – and my wheatear seems to like it too. Sometimes, though, we don’t understand what we’re looking at, even when we know what it’s called.

I’ve no idea where I’m going today, but the track to Lead Mines Clough is calling, and this takes us on to the ruins of Simms. There’s a Peak and Northern signpost here that lures you down into the bog. Sometimes the paths fall out of use, while the markers remain. This one’s number 260, dated 1997. The list of these robust and reassuring signposts is still growing. Signpost number one is of historical importance and dates to 1905. It lies between Hayfield and Glossop, and the cradle of the ramblers’ movement. It would be quite an achievement to visit, and photograph every one.

Peak and Northern Footpaths Society

There’s another oak of my acquaintance nearby, hanging on above Green Withins Brook. I’ve tried a few times to photograph it, but can never do it justice. Same today. I settle down with the camera, but my head’s elsewhere, and none of the shots are in focus. Sometimes we plunge into the details, and forget the basics.

I have read recently how consciousness is intentional. That means we are not aware of everything the senses throw at us, only what we focus on. And what we focus on is filtered by the psyche. But the psyche is not a machine. It’s fuzzy, and mysterious. Today I’m thinking “wild flowers” and “diversity”. Otherwise, I suppose I would not have spotted the tiny purple blooms hiding in the moss, here.

Google tells me this is heath milkwort, or polygala serpyllifolia. I feel very knowledgeable writing that down. The sheep must have missed it, and they don’t miss much. I must look out for more heath milkwort on future outings and hopefully impress someone with my countryphile’s knowledge.

We follow Green Withins Brook downstream, now, towards its confluence with the fledgling Yarrow. There’s a little waterfall here, another favourite photographic subject coming up, and I try a new angle on it: narrow aperture to get the depth of field, focus on the sky, let the ISO wander where it will, so long as it’s below four hundred. I’ve a good feeling about this one. Perhaps in monochrome with a slight sepia tint.

Small falls on Green Withins Brook, Anglezarke

Then we’re up the moor towards Old Rachels. There are oyster catchers here, piping shrill as they make their busy way over the moor. I always think of them as a maritime bird because the first time I saw them was on a beach, in the west of Scotland. They always have an exotic feel to them, though I suppose they are quite common, if you know where to look.

It’s a boggy stretch, this, and we’re testing the ground as we go. I used to carry a pole for this purpose, what I call a bog hopping stick, but seem to have fallen out of the habit. It’s a question of knowing the consistency of the ground – which areas will support a man in passing, and which will open up and swallow him, cap and all.

Sometimes the senses get muddled, and things work backwards. They end up telling us what the mind is expecting, whether it’s real or not. I’m thinking my boots are leaking, because sometimes they do. Sure enough, the feet feel wet as we come out of the bog, but when we check, the feet are dry. Then, even though we now know they’re dry, they still feel wet, all the way back to the car. Imagination is a funny thing.

Common Chaffinch

Another bird of omen greets us on return, settling on a branch and having a good look at us. He dodges about a bit, but we manage to get a shot, so we can show it to Google. Common Chaffinch, says Google, and I can almost hear it yawn. It’s such a know-it-all. But it does not tell me what a pretty little bird a chaffinch is, common or not, nor what it portends,…

for the journey home.

Thanks for listening.

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You were standing by the building society in town, where you’ve worked for forty-five years. You wore cashiers’ blue polyester. It was lunchtime, Saturday, closing time, I guess. I’d seen you in there from time to time, those quaint decades of savings books, and mortgages. You served me once or twice, fed my book into the machine, caught up the interest, but did not recognise me. I was afraid of embarrassing us both by reminding you, I mean, with a queue behind. And anyway, it seemed pointless.

“We were at school together, shared literature and Mr H.”

It always sounded a bit weak, when I ran it through in my head, and I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.

But, though it seems the fates decided long ago you shall never know me, you always meant something. I felt you were a good soul, and more besides. You were a datum, I suppose, one of the beacons in time and space, by which I found my way, from the ways I had already been. I don’t mean this in the romantic sense. I would have liked you to have liked me, that’s all, but I was always too shy, when we were kids, to make friends.

Unlike many of our year, who are now unrecognisable to me, your face hasn’t changed at all. So, every time I see you, I am transported back to when we were both sixteen. You were a bright girl, and you understood all those novels and poems and plays we had to read in Mr H’s literature class, while I struggled. I enjoyed Hardy, and Frost, and Heaney, even though I didn’t understand them the way I was expected to. In time, though, their seedlings would take root and carry me through to other things, things which have been a blessing of becoming. While as for Dickens, I have never forgiven him for being the darkness that blighted the summer of my fifteenth year. Now we’re both pushing sixty-two, you and I, and, forgive me, but I note you’ve filled out a little. Me? I’ve grown bald and deaf, and bottle-bottom myopic. You’d be even more hard-pressed to remember me, now.

I was with my son. We had found a new Italian place in town, and enjoyed lunch, wondered if this could be the start of a renaissance for the town, which has been very much down at heel since the crash, and seemingly getting worse. But there’d still been that ragged old toothless guy, on the car park, begging, so I guess not. Indeed, I felt guilty at blowing so much on a lunch, on a whim, while the beggars are counting coppers. But anyway, we were oblivious of the state of things, for a time, my son and I, bolstered by a lunch that seemed to tip things back towards the way they used to be. We were chatting about the world, about events,… and the sun was shining, and the pink spring blossom was on the trees,…

And then there you were, that magical touchstone. At once, I felt the years, as I always do, when I see you, felt the gulf of them. It was not the gap between us, because we never knew each other, nor aspired to. It was more simply the span of time, an ocean of events tossed and swept under the bridge since our schooldays. I remember bits of them like it was yesterday, and it’s still hard to believe I retired last year. You are evidently still working.

From a safe distance, I paused and looked back, as the Saturday crowds swept by, and I wondered. You were moving away. I saw you leaning into your hip, then, and propelling yourself into the arthritic gait of advancing years, and I felt something give. How could it be you had grown old of a sudden, without my knowing, while I still feel so young? But that’s what souls do, I suppose. They deny the mantle of age, whatever the body says to the contrary. I trust you feel the same, inside, as I do.

Meanwhile, our world has grown old, hasn’t it, while the world, for my son, is still new. Indeed, about the only thing not to have changed for me is that I still hate Dickens. I’d give the guy another chance, except sometimes it’s worth more simply accepting things the way they are, because that’s just the way they have to be.

Anyway,… go well.

Thanks for listening.

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Dreaming. 1860. J. Israels

You’re out driving, and there’s a cop car at the side of the road. He’s pulled someone over and is serving them a ticket. You cruise past, glance through your passenger window, and the scene triggers a flash-back to last night’s dream – the same type of cop car, glimpsed through the passenger side window. So you think: that’s a neat coincidence. Right?

It wasn’t exactly the same situation. In the dream, you were parked, and the cop car pulled alongside, and the cop said: “You don’t mind if I park here, do you, sir?” But you were definitely looking at this same kind of cop car, through the passenger side window. And if things had happened the other way around, say you’d seen the cop car, and then the next night it had popped up in your dreams, you’d know where the dream had borrowed it from. But as things stand, it was just a coincidence. Anything else, and the dream had seen your future. And that’s not possible. Is it?

So then, some nights later, you dream you’re out in a part of the countryside you’ve not been to for years. It’s not an extraordinary dream – just your usual muddle of inside out and back to front stuff, the one thing bleeding into the other, and no particularly coherent narrative. Then you wake, and you reach for the phone, and you read the blogs you follow, and a guy has posted a piece on that same part of the countryside, which triggers the memory of the dream, and you think: that’s odd. Another coincidence? Sure. Or maybe you caught a glimpse of that blog before you slept, and you just forgot. Because anything else is impossible. Right?

So then you dream you’re talking to a notorious world leader in your back garden – like you do – but you’re struggling to understand what he’s saying, and you’re worried he’ll think you’re a bit numb, but you can’t help it because he’s contorting the upper left side of his lip in the most peculiar way, which distorts his speech. The next evening you decide to check out a film on Netflix, in which it turns out the lead man is portrayed with a hair lip, which has the same way of moving as in the dream. It breaks the dream, so to speak, brings back the memory of it. Another coincidence? Startling one too, this. Or maybe you caught a trailer for the film before you slept, and you just forgot.

These are all dreams I’ve collected over the last few weeks. And the question arises: how many dreams like that does it take, before the only reasonable conclusion you can come to is that your dreams are indeed previsioning little bits of your future? The thing to note is the banal nature of the images, and the fact we’re seeing in the dream what we will see, ourselves, at a point in our own future. We’re not talking about any dramatic premonition of calamity. Nor are we claiming any paranormal faculty. It seems to be the normal way the mind – any mind, your mind, my mind – Hoovers up observed events and regurgitates them in distorted form, in dreams. It’s just that the dreams seem to have access to events you haven’t observed yet. Only by habitual observation of the visual details of your dreams do you realise it. And who’s crazy enough to do that?

Isolated instances can perhaps be dismissed as coincidence, but the longer we pay attention to our dreams, and the more hits we score, the less likely coincidence becomes. Of course, if you’re of a materialist, reductionist mindset, no matter how many dreams you have, you’ll still call it a coincidence, or you’ll swerve your dreams altogether, believing them to be nonsense anyway, so the problem will not arise for you.

Others have written at length on this phenomenon, namely J W Dunne, J B Priestly and more recently Gary Lachman. Tentative explanations involve additional levels of consciousness, each with its own time reference. I can’t say for sure if this is right, but it does make a kind of sense. Let’s say, as a working hypothesis, it’s plausible, but it also strikes me that, even when science means well by the unknown, it comes across as being somewhat primitive in its toolkit.

So if we are indeed opening a crack in time by paying attention to our dreams, we have to accept there are no definitive explanations about what’s going on. There are only more questions. What draws us forward are the tantalising hints at unexplored human potential. We’ve been a long time evolving, but there’s nothing to say we’re yet done adapting to our environment, even as we shape it. In this light, precognitive dreaming might be a thing we’re evolving towards, an evolutionary mutation still looking for an advantage in the world we’re creating. Or maybe such precognition was an advantage in our hunter-gatherer past, say, warning of the bear we were to encounter in the woods next day, and which risked killing us. But now it’s a faculty that’s atrophied for want of use, like one’s appendix, or coccyx. Still, there are plenty of dangers facing us in the contemporary world, yet my dreams seem more concerned with quirky art-house details than risks to life and limb – so maybe that’s not its function at all. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Philosophers paint such a gloomy picture of the human condition, the existentialists having concluded we’re just an accident of nature, and better off adjusting to that fact, than hanging on for something transcendent, or for hints of meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. Given the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one can hardly blame them for reaching such a bleak conclusion. Nor is the twenty-first shaping up to be any better. But I think nature has left enough clues in the shadows to hint at a path, which has the potential to lead us from the dark forest the philosophers have abandoned us in. I am confident we are more than we seem, and that there is more to the world, to its space and time.

Then again, before we set foot down this path, we must be sure what beckons is not simply a will-o’-the-wisp, leading us to drown in a bog of groundless speculation. Maybe there is a rational explanation for that cop car, the country roads, and the hare lip, one that doesn’t sound even more far-fetched than the suggestion we sometimes see our future. Selective bias and coincidence are the usual explainaways. Belief in the paranormal is another, as it’s highly correlated with a propensity towards selective bias and outright self-delusion. Still, none of these ring true to me, in this insance, but then I suppose they wouldn’t. From your own perspective, of course, the obvious explainaway is that Dunne, Priestly, Lachman, and me, we’re all making it up, that we story tellers are simply looking for attention, or to fill column space on an otherwise dull day.

That’s fine, until you have such a dream yourself, and then you cannot help but wonder.

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Drybones Dam and the fishpass, Birkacre

This post concerns a dead dog, witchcraft, and the fact there’s nowt so queer as folk. But first, the anemones!

I wrote last time of my attempt to take pictures of the wood anemones around Birkacre and Drybones wood. But I had left my memory card at home, so my camera was useless. Instead, I enjoyed the walk for the opportunity to experience “presence”, and the muse presented me with a poetic challenge: how to turn nihilistic crud into the alchemical gold of enlightenment. I’m still pondering that one.

I didn’t intend returning today, and certainly not so soon after my previous visit. I had intended a walk in the West Pennines, but a massive traffic jam rerouted me, so here we are, as if by magic, back at the Birkacre visitor centre, where there are even more people and more dogs than last time.

On the plus side, it’s looking like a better day for photography, a better light, with more persistent sunshine. As for the crowds, they tend not to venture much further than Drybones dam, on the Yarrow. Ten minutes beyond that, into the woods, and they are forgotten. The woods are pungent today with wafts of spring earth and allium. The anemones are in profusion. I get my fill of photographs, and resolve to return in a few weeks, hopefully timing it for when the anemones are accompanied by the bluebells and the starry heads of wild garlic.

The deep wood for me is that which fills the valley of the horseshoe of the River Yarrow. An ancient highway – actually a narrow muddy track – leads us to through it. I have known this area since boyhood, and used to hunt it with an air-rifle in the days when it was less frequented, and before I knew better. So, yes everywhere is more well trodden than it used to be, but the woodland is still a special, quiet place, a place of contemplation, of calm. Woodlands possess certain liminal properties that put us on the edge of “otherness”.

I have begun to notice a trend for floral tokens, left in discrete places, places near water or in the embrace of trees. They are, I presume, transient memorials to the departed. I have also noticed bolder evidence of folk religion – aka witchcraft – these being items handcrafted from natural materials and hung from the branches of trees. Our organised religions are struggling for membership. Indeed, I predict all but the most fundamentalist Christian congregations will be gone in a generation. But there is still something in many of us that seeks connection with that sense of the “other”, and it finds expression any way it can. Thus, today, we note in passing the budding alder is home to a small woven pentangle.

The way leads us on to the ancient Duxbury Hall estate, once a massive manicured parkland, now reverted largely to nature. At this point we can swing back to Birkacre, or we can continue our way following the Yarrow upstream, and make a loop through the woodland of Duxbury park. We choose the latter.

It’s as we follow our nose here, I am reminded of Beavis, and an unfinished story I began to write years ago, but paused at the punchline, not wanting to intrude upon the original legend with my own version of it. But today, I don’t care, and I’m going to go for it. But first, let’s see if he’s still around. Beavis was, and in some sense still is, a dog, a big, fast hunting hound with a very loud bark.

The original memorial to Beavis in Duxbury Woods

The grave of Beavis has been a feature of these woodlands since 1870, when Susan Standish, of Duxbury Hall, had a memorial stone laid in gratitude for the dog rousing the house on the night of a fire, the year before,1869. Thanks to Beavis, everyone got out, while the house itself suffered badly and had to be partially rebuilt. That’s as far as the story goes, but there’s something wrong with it, and I’ll explain in a moment, see what you think.

It’s a while since I was last at the site, and half expected by now the statue of the dog to have been carried off, or vandalised, as is the way with these things. The original statue suffered that fate, in the early twentieth century, leaving only the memorial plaque to weather the years, and pass on its enigmatic sentiment.

Proceeding upstream, the memorial is on the right-hand bank of the Yarrow. It’s sometimes missed, as there are a profusion of ways through the wood, many of them leading to a quagmire. But if you stick close to the river, you’ll find him all right. And I’m pleased to discover he’s in fine fettle, at least for a dog that’s been dead since 1842.

Did we say 1842?

Well, the memorial stone reads:

“All ye who wander through these peaceful glades,
Listening to the Yarrow’s rippling waves,
Pause and bestow a tributary tear.
The bones of faithful Beavis slumber here.”

1842

This remembrance erected by Susan Mrs Standish, 1870

So, the memorial tells us the dog died in 1842. Then we have the documented record of the fire at Duxbury Hall in 1869, and the story of the dog raising the house, and Mrs Standish’s subsequent laying of the memorial in gratitude, in 1870. Logical conclusion: the beast that roused the house in 1869 was not Beavis, at least not in any corporeal form, because Beavis had already been in the ground for sixteen years. Question: Are we dealing with a ghost dog? Did the Standishes lay the dog properly to rest with a suitable memorial in 1870, because, on the night of the fire, they realised, it had been running the woods undead since 1842. If so, lucky for them it had!

So far as I’m aware, this version of events has not passed into local lore, and, if true, is a story that went to the grave with the last of the Standishes. I prefer my version to the original, even though I’ve possibly embellished it beyond what is decent, and romantic though the original is. But there we are. You heard it here first!

From the memorial, the going becomes more difficult further upstream, the Yarrow having washed its banks out in various places, and taken the path with it. But with a bit of scrambling and thrashing about in the undergrowth, we reach the bridge which grants access to the opposite bank. Here, there’s a better path to bring us downstream, and which completes our diversionary loop through the history – natural and otherwise – of Duxbury wood.

This particular route is popular with visitors, and presents no difficulties. In various places, the refreshing scent of mature pine mingles with the sweet and sickly presence of something more weedy. I remind myself not to be around here after sundown, and not because I’m scared of ghosts – well, not of Beavis anyway. I’ve known him since I was a kid, and I think we’re on friendly terms.

And speaking of dogs, finally, we return to the crowds and their dogs around the visitor centre. On the car park, there is a dirty slouch of a man who is allowing his dog to dash about on the loose. It’s interfering with the dogs of other people, and with the people themselves. Most politely ignore the annoyance. Some make timid remonstrations, to be greeted at once with a stream of disproportionate invective. I do not like the F word in mixed company, and especially not when young children are around, but then I’m knocking on in years, and the world is changing.

People are strange creatures. It’s a wonder we get along as well as we do. Nor is it any wonder why sometimes we don’t.

If you go down in the woods today,…

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The path to Whernside

It was summer, the last time I walked this route up Whernside, which is perhaps why I remember it so well. Which summer though? Let me see: I was driving a blue, mark four Cortina, which means it was 1982, and I was 21.

It was also my summer of love, or rather it was my discovery of the love of the transcendent phenomenon that is hill walking. Girls would come later, but the hills were more constant, always a revelation, and, like the present Lady Graeme, always happy to take me as I am.

It was a hot, dry summer, that year, and no trains ran on the Settle to Carlisle line. There was a strike by ASLEF over flexible rostering. The boss-class still moan about it in their histories of the period. They never did get the unions, or class warfare.

Today is cold. Back home, down on the Lancashire Plain, it’s been spring for weeks. The hedgerows are greening, the buds are budding, and the cherries and hawthorns are blossoming. But here, in Yorkshire, it’s still winter. An arctic blast greets us at Ribblehead, as we crack open the car door. There’s ice in the roadside gulleys, and an ominous bank of cloud is jostling the sunshine, threatening hail. The three peaks each have a cap of snow, and I’m wondering if we should have packed our ancient instep crampons – purchased from Settle’s legendary “Cave and Crag”, now sadly gone. I can’t remember the last time I wore them, and probably couldn’t work out how to fasten them anyway – they were always a pain. I should get some of those newfangled microspikes, but I keep thinking my days of winter walking are over.

Still here we are.

Ribblehead Viaduct – Settle to Carlisle line

The Ribblehead Viaduct is magnificent. A soaring masterpiece, circa 1875, when Britain called itself great, and without irony, though mostly because labour was cheap, and expendable, especially Irish hands, like my grandfather’s. But let’s not go down that road. It was all a long time ago, except time is less fixed for me these days, since I am no longer called to heel by the alarm clock every morning.

Last night I dreamed I was an apprentice again, back in the old factory, a place of several thousand souls. I was seeing and talking to people I had forgotten I knew, and whom I have not seen since nineteen seventy-nine. Sights, sounds, scents, … it was strange, but comforting to know those souls are still as they were, that we are all still as we always were, always are, somewhere in this weird thing we call time.

Anyway, it’s not the most dramatic of peaks, Whernside. It lacks the shapely grandeur of Ingleborough or Penyghent. But, being the biggest of the trio, it counts itself as King, and rightly so. And it’s not without its charms. By far the biggest charm, however, is the rising perspective is grants us of its nearest neighbour, Ingleborough, whose brutal geology is starkly displayed today, courtesy of a dusting of snow, which trickles down the gulleys in crinkles of dentritic splendour. Most of my photographs today are of Ingleborough. Whernside, I find, isn’t photogenic at all.

Ingleborough

The wind drops as we enter the lee of the land, and the chill shock of Ribblehead fades as we warm on the ascent. There are few other walkers about. That ominous bank of boiling cloud is a worry, but we’ll keep our eye on it. We’re overtaken by a lady who looks to be more senior than our own years, then a gentleman more senior than hers. Age is a funny business, part driven, I think, by something inside us. In the hills, I have known a man of eighty easily outpace a man of fifty, simply because he refuses to believe he is getting on. We can grow old at any age, give up and whither at forty if we choose. All we have to do is look back, and then we stiffen.

I am climbing the path up Whernside, so I must still be 21. This is not looking back. This is participating in the eternal, and therefore timeless, adventure. It’s a mystery, to which the hills grant us a tantalising clue. Or so I tell myself.

One foot in front of the other. Pause. Admire the view. Take some pictures. Plod on. We cross the snowline. Up close, it’s just a dusting, not exactly Tyrolean. But you can’t underestimate the British hills. Here, sudden change, and overconfidence are your enemies. Check the Met office, read the sky. Pack another layer, a head-torch, a survival bag. Know how to read a map, and use a compass, or at the very least walk with someone else who can. Yes, the OS app on our phones or our Garmin is terrific, but our technology is deskilling us, and that’s a risk in the hills, where we need our wits about us.

My last visit to Whernside was not 1982. It was around 2006. I came up from Dent that day. November I think. I made the summit with the left side of me white with frost, and my ear burning. I came down with tinnitus, which still bothers me off and on. That was a very cold day, a good day, another journey in life’s album of eternal nows.

A wall runs along the summit, and there’s a curved shelter which gets us out of the wind today. We catch up with the senior lady and exchange pleasantries. She is joined by a Yorkshireman who claims never to have been up the hill before. When asked why not, he explains with a grin that he could never get his van up it.

The way off the hill used to be like free-fall but, like many of our most treasured mountains, much has been done to tackle erosion, and there is now a carefully laid, twisty path that snakes us down in double quick-time, towards the valley bottom. Then it’s a couple of miles through pleasant pastures, back to Ribblehead, and the car. About eight and a quarter miles round, fourteen hundred feet of ascent.

I was never a hill athlete. I could not have climbed Whernside, having first climbed Penyghent and walked the moors from Horton. I could never have then gone on to tackle that imposing wall of Ingleborough. Those who attempt the three peaks have my admiration. That’s a walk that takes fitness, and character.

So, anyway, back to the car. A lonely spot, Ribblehead – a collection of cottages and a pub, but it has a railway station. Coffee and cakes next, then. A toss up between Horton and Ingleton. Okay, … Ingleton it is. Beats working.

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