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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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The arts put man at the centre of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage – and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still – I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.”

Kurt Vonnegut -1970

Unless you’re already some sort of celebrity, it’s a well established fact the arts are no way to make a living. But what they do for the ordinary Joe and Joanna, is make living meaningful, or even just bearable. It brings each of us back to the centre of our universe. It may be there is nothing to life and death, nor anything beyond it, and all our stories to the contrary are wishful thinking. But the person who takes up a pen, writes a story, or a poem, paints a picture, sings in a choir, dances, performs in amateur dramatics, or even – as Vonnegut once also put it – makes a face in their mashed potato, performs an act of defiance. If there’s art, creativity, inside of you, you have to let it out. Do not deny you have a soul, or the soul will become a demon, and it will eat you.

Trying to write for money nearly killed my desire to write in the first place. It’s likely there’s a good reason my novels never tickled an editor’s fancy, but an inability to court the art-world or write like a Hemingway or a Vonnegut is no reason not to write. My novels have taught me, and shaped me in ways that would not have happened if I’d spent every night in the pub, or watching trash TV. I dabble in watercolours too. I’m no good at it, and can only marvel at the masters, but I do enjoy working with colour. Poetry, comes and goes. Photography is more constant. I spent a good bit of yesterday setting up a shot of a watering can and a garden fork, then waiting for the sky to turn interesting. I don’t know why. Art can use technology, too. It all depends on how you use it. The picture isn’t going to win any competitions, but it’s what I saw and felt, what I was looking for, and what I was trying to express that’s the important thing. And I don’t always have words for that. Nor does it have to please anyone else.

I mention this to illustrate how when we get stuck with one form of expression, we simply turn to another. There’s an endless list of creative means. I’ve just adopted the ones that appeal to me. Thus, we cycle. If we’re not performing for money, it doesn’t matter. The work gets done, effortlessly, and the work is about you. It’s about building you by whatever means come to hand.

I enjoy reading blogs. But the blogs I follow are of a particular sort. They’re not selling anything, and are written by people with no agenda, other than to give vent to their creative energies. And what interesting personalities they are, each of them worthy of a glossy, hard-backed biography on the shelves in Waterstones, and these individual perspectives have shaped me too. But, other than through the semi-anonymity of the blogging medium, these authors have discovered the secret of contentment in being unknown. They do it because they enjoy it, and seek no explanation for it. But they’re growing their souls, and mine, all the same. They are, to quote Kurt Vonnegut again, “becoming”.

I remember an old trades union leader telling of looking up at a monolithic block of Brutlaist flats. To others, it would have presented a grey, depressing vision of “the masses”. But behind any one of those hundreds, or thousands of little windows, he said, was a potential philosopher, mathematician, writer, actor, social activist, or an inspirational leader, and to deny them the opportunity of “becoming” is the tragedy of a regressive society. To treat people as contemptible, as trash, is to diminish all people, everywhere.

I like the way Vonnegut put it in that opening quote. Yes, maybe the materialists are right, there’s no soul, no purpose, consciousness is an illusion, and we’re all just robots made of meat. Who am I to deny it? Yet, I deny it anyway. The soul is a work in progress. The tools we use are the whole panoply of creative expression. And if you don’t feel yourself to be naturally creative, you can always feed upon the art of others. Read. Look at pictures. Watch a play. Listen to music. But try not to fall for what is shallow – you can usually identify it by the fact its purpose is more to empty your pockets for little return, or to make you hate. Try to go deeper, into the sublime, and feel it. And what you will feel there, that is the only reality. Yes, there is certainly a world, a universe, without a soul, where we can erase all feelings with a pill, but it’s one we’ve created. I never said we were perfect, and perhaps it’s integral to the human condition that when it comes to the journey of the soul, we will always have a long way to go. So be creative for its own sake. Every day. It’s good for you. And it’s good for everyone else.

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Solomon’s Temple, Withnell Moor

You catch up with us today at Solomon’s Temple, on Withnell Moor, and it’s lunchtime. First, though, we unlace our boots and let our feet relax. We’ve only walked a couple of miles from Brinscall, but things aren’t looking promising. Suddenly, all this talk of the strangeness of dreams is of little interest when we’re on the moor, and our boots hurt.

The boots are newish, a bit old-school in their construction. I’d thought to get up on the moors with them, see if we could break them in a bit, but they’re proving to be stubborn. They’re British army surplus, made by Iturri. You can get them for a song off Ebay, like new. They’re a solid boot, but they bite.

It’s one of those “follow our nose” sorts of days. There’s no plan, just out enjoying the moor. But since we find ourselves at Solomon’s, it looks like the subconscious has Great Hill in mind. The boots are man enough for that, man enough for a lot of things, I guess. But I’m not sure my feet are up to much more today, at least not in these boots.

Mushroom soup for lunch. For company, we have the larks, a curlew, and fieldfares. There are no people. I left them all thrashing about in Brinscall woods, looking for the Hatch Brook Falls. The falls are not easy to get to, but the guy who asked me for directions tells me it even has its own Tripadvisor rating, now. That worries me. I directed him as best I could, but he’d come a long way, and wasn’t familiar with the names of places. I advised him to be careful. He nodded with enthusiasm, then set off in the opposite direction to what I’d said.

Hatch Brook Falls, Brinscall

The little blue car’s down on Brinscall’s Lodge Bank Terrace. The sills I’d had welded some years ago are coming through again, and I have to make a decision. Expensive one this. MX5s, like mine, can go for five or six thousand, at a dealership, spruced up, so it may be worth the investment. Or they might fetch as little as fifteen hundred, private and spotty, in which case it isn’t. Mine’s probably somewhere in the middle. She has a full service history, and she’s coddled, but the repair is on the edge of sensible for a twenty-year-old car. It depends on how much the car means, I suppose. I find it means a lot. But that’s not rational, and I’m usually rational when it comes to cars.

Ratten Clough, Brinscall

So anyway, we’ve walked up through the woods, location for the creepy bits of that Netflix thing “Stay Close”. Then it was onto the moor via the ruins of Ratten Clough, and we followed our nose to Solomon’s Temple. New Temple is next, then Old Man’s Hill, and a little trodden way that approaches Great Hill, from the north. It’s a warm day, a jostling of jolly cumulus, and some stratospheric streaks toning down the blue. The ground is mostly firm. Yesterday’s full moon seems to have ushered in a change to fair, after a very cold Easter weekend.

The light is dynamic, and full of interest. I complained in an earlier blog, all we’re doing with photography is trying to freeze the moment. But that’s not right. We’re bearing witness to a moment in time, as well as trying to capture an essence of the beauty of the world. It’s like we capture glow-worms in a jar, then hold them up in wonder and say: look at that!

But in the middle of the day, like this, a photograph never comes out as you see it. Even with a decent camera, the scene is flat, the contrasts, the colours lacking vibrancy. Or maybe it’s just my eyes, and I like to see the world through Van Gough’s spectacles. So I spend a while with software filters, teasing out the world the way I see it. My kids say whatever pills I’m taking, they want some.

Okay, lunch done, boots fiddled with, fastened, unfastened, adjusted, refastened, and on we go. Note to self: Hotspots around the ankles and under the right heel. Early signs of blistering to the backs of both left and right heels. I wouldn’t like to be a soldier tabbing far in these. No wonder they were surpluse to requirements. We clip the western approach to the hill, then turn-tail for Drinkwaters, and White Coppice. We’re three miles out now, and it’s far enough. It’s a pity to miss the top, but I reckon our feet only have a couple of miles left, and three to go.

Drinkwaters, Anglezarke

Of course, it’s a risk, fixing up the bodywork of the little blue car, at such great expense – maybe half as much as the car’s worth. It’s asking for a serious mechanical fault to develop soon after. That’s the way with old cars. But you can get a lot of repairs for the price of a fresh car, if keeping the old one going is what you want.

Some schools are still off for Easter this week, so White Coppice looks busy as we descend the moor. We avoid the noise by staying high and turning north along the edge of the Brinscall fault. Pace is slow, both feet on fire.

There’s a roe deer down in the valley, a mature female – not exactly rare now, but still a joy to come across in the wild. It sees me before I see it, and it bolts high, climbs to the moor’s edge and watches from the safety of altitude. We eye each other, I chance a shot on full zoom. It knows the line of my route, even knows, perhaps, my boots are hurting, so then it bounds along the ridge, and crosses back down the path behind me. “I’ll get no trouble from him,” it’s thinking. “Poor guy can barely walk.”

Roe Deer, Goit Valley, Anglezarke

We sit a while beneath the ash at the ruins of Goose Green farm, let the feet relax again. It was also known as the Green Goose, in the days when farms were also permitted to sell ale. I wouldn’t mind a pint of something cold and murky, actually. I’d fill these boots with it and cool my feet down.

It’s easy going now, a decent, level path, along the Goit, all the way back to Mill Bank Terrace. The little blue car is a welcome sight. And it’s heaven to get the trainers on. A run out’s not the same without the little blue car. She’s not perfect, and rather Spartan by today’s touch-screen standards. But I enjoy her imperfections, and her simplicity. And driving her still makes me smile. Okay, we’ll call at the body shop this week and see what the man thinks. When I croak, it would be nice to think of her being discovered in my garage, a mint condition MX5, covered in the dust of memory, and a quarter of a million miles on the clock. Then some boy racer goes and wrecks her in five minutes.

Those boot though? Well, after today, I think we’re done. I’d never trust them to get me down from a big hill. I’m hoping they’re just a pair of duds, because I’d hate to think of the entire British Army marching in boots like those, poor souls. I don’t know, though; it would be a pity. Maybe a bit more breaking in will do the trick. Lunch at Solomon’s’ was good though. We’ll have to do that again sometime.

Thanks for listening.

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I am at the council recycling depot, wanting to recycle some books, but the book recycling thing is full. On enquiring, the high-vis man thinks me stupid. “Chuck them in the waste card and paper, then,” he says, like the answer is obvious, and I suppose it is. But he doesn’t understand; these books are important, and must be recycled, as books. I have no idea if that is indeed the function of the book recycling thing, but have persuaded myself it is for, though I do not want to see them on my shelves any more, I cannot have them actually, knowingly, destroyed. The knowledge in these books, though precious and hard won by the toil and intellect of centuries, is no longer relevant to me, though I have clung to them for forty years, thinking that it was. Destruction is, perhaps, the more powerful symbol, a truer sacrifice, and though I resist it with all my being, the fates seem to agree – I mean, the book recycling thing being full.

Here I am, then, adding my old engineering textbooks to a mountain of card and paper, which will go for pulp. Mathematics, Metallurgy, Principles of Engineering Production, Mechanics of Solids, Electrical Machinery, Thermodynamics, Hydraulics, Control Theory,…

In some cases, I knew the authors. They lectured in the technical colleges of the industrial towns, where I studied. They were remarkable men, at the top of their field, nearing retirement, and, it being forty years ago, I suppose they are all gone now. I was to use this knowledge to change the world. I was to design bridges, ships, aeroplanes. I was to work on hydroelectric schemes, and bring power to remote parts. I was to invent something that would save lives.

Instead, I settled into a big organisation, did a bit of this, and a bit of that. I did my time, commuted forty miles a day, day in day out, built a pension, and then I retired. But I was always going to come back to these books, one day. I was going to study them anew, do them the justice they deserved. I was going to lecture a little, part-time, bring on the next generation. But the world changed, grew strange and did not need me any more. The mould gathered upon them, and their knowledge atrophied for want of use, both by me and out there. There is always this perennial political waffle of building a high-skills, high-tech economy, but the truth is different and lacks the white-heat optimism of the nineteen-sixties. Engineering, and in particular, manufacturing engineering, always boils down to the price of a pair of hand, so engineering in the west became a case of getting someone else to do it for us, and why not, since they do it so well? And cheaper.

Our technical colleges don’t call themselves by that name any more. They prefer far fancier titles. Yet I had begun to notice how the graduates from these places could not communicate their ideas, had no aptitude for visualising three-dimensional space from the two dimensions of an engineering drawing, let alone create a drawing themselves. The fag-packet sketch, much maligned, but in fact a high bandwidth means of communication among its initiates, was a thing of the past, as were its initiates. But it is not a handicap now. Be you a graduate of anything, you are on the fast tracks to management, and the supervision of all things by spreadsheet and email which, I admit, is the way of the material world, and different to the one I knew and trained for.

And on a more personal level, I recognise these have always been books for the first half of life, which is about establishing oneself in that material world, or such as it was for me at the time. It is about education, work, relationships, progeny, house, home. The second half of life is about meaning, and entering now the last quarter of it, I feel I should be making more progress with meaning, than I am. I have inklings, but they are fickle, and too easily eclipsed by everyday narrowness. And these books are no help in that respect.

With the books gone, I drive a little way to a country park. It was once a piece of open country with a pretty river, lakes, and woodland. Now it is an amenity, replete with multicoloured signage, waymarkers and dog-poo bins. It’s a midweek morning, there are people, and the usual riot of dogs. I give them all the slip, and penetrate deep into the ancient parts of the woodland. I want to take pictures of anemones, in a place where I know they grow in profusion. Anemones grow slowly, and do not take well to the new-fangled. We have much in common.

I find the spot, and the sun comes out, as if to join in my enthusiasm. But then: “No memory card”, says the camera. I have left it in my computer at home. I do this a lot, so always carry a spare in my wallet. Feeling smug in my forethought, I slip the spare into the camera. “Cannot read memory card”, it says. “Choose another.”

The card is a dud. There will be no photography today. I will have to ride the present moment, instead of trying to freeze it. The anemones are beautiful, white, and an ever so delicate purple, trembling in the breeze. A line of poetry comes, unbidden:

Awakening to loss, we mourn the day’s swift run,…

I have checked Google-box, and it does not appear I have acquired the line by cryptamnesia. It is a genuine opening from the muse, and, on the face of it, somewhat morbid. But I sense it is not meant to be so. Indeed, I feel the challenge is that I should work it into something positive, something like the latch to a gate of meaning. Either that, or it is a chastisement for being so down in the mouth myself today.

A heron rises from the riverbank. It has no sense of mortality, lives in a permanent now, until the moment it doesn’t. We’re different. We awaken to self consciousness, to an awareness of the impermanence of things, including the span of our own lives. And our lives can seem as fragile and delicate, and trembling as the anemones. Then there’s this sense of the past filling up, and so much of it forgotten, like Newton’s laws of motion, like dust behind the settee,… And then the future getting thinner, as the present moment accelerates, towards our end. The philosophies I have read do seem rather pessimistic on this score, or at least as much as I understand them – philosophy not being my grounding, and possessing a vocabulary I find rather difficult to grasp. Poetry though? Yes, I was writing poetry, even as I studied engineering, and have always believed that only through poetry, or other genuine acts of creativity, do we approach the harbingers of true meaning. And then it is by disengaging from the narrowing structure of the material world, and the intellect, and allowing something else to speak, through us.

I do not like destroying books, which is why I still have too many, some of them from childhood. But in this case, a burden is lifted, I think. As for that first line, the best I can do is meditate upon it.

Thanks for listening.

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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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(One of) The Twich Hill Oaks

March’s full moon ushers in a definite change. Suddenly it feels like spring, as the sky peels open to an optimistic blue, and the temperature breaks fifteen degrees. We’re sitting by the ruins of Peewit Hall, on the edge of the Anglezarke moors, looking out over the lush green of hill and dale as it runs from Jepsons, down the gentle undulations of Twitch Hills, into Lead Mines Clough. There are larks today, the first I’ve heard this year, and the rapture of them lifts the spirit. I’m sure they know this, and I appreciate their effort. We could all use some cheer. Also, somewhere down the valley, I hear the rising, scratchy call of a Lapwing.

We were late getting going today, noon already, but we’re making up for it. The car is down by Parson’s Bullough, and we’ve just come up by the oaks in the meadow above Twitch Hills. They’re always impressive these trees, fine focal points, marking the line of the path. They anchor the senses in the midst of an otherwise dizzying panorama. We have no route in mind as yet, just a vague idea of heading up to the Pikestones, then we’ll see what other ideas strike us. We’re coasting, feeling out the future by the seat of our pants, today, enjoying the sunshine and the earthy scent of spring.

The View from Peewit Hall

I’m reading a lot about the nature of time, and the fourth dimension, as they used to call it. In ordinary consciousness, we travel a single line in time. Our reality is defined by a point on that line, this being the present moment, like now, as we sit by the ruins of this old farm, looking out towards Jepsons. Memory tells us the line in time that brought us here but, ordinarily at least, we have no clue where it’s going.

This much is obvious, but what’s not so obvious is that in order to see ourselves in this beautiful landscape, there must be another awareness, another level of observation. And there’s a strong suspicion among time theorists this higher part of our selves views our reality, not as a point in time, but as a line that ventures some way into that future, and not necessarily a fixed future, either, more one of potential outcomes. And sometimes, just sometimes, it leaves clues for us in our dreams, if we pay attention to them.

And our future, from this point?

Okay, the Pikestones it is.

The Pikestones

The moor is still heavy underfoot, though it must be a week since we had any serious rain. And the Pikestones? Like most prehistoric monuments, they’re high in expectation, but ultimately low in drama. Some years ago, vandals of a neo-pagan bent, similarly under-whelmed, thought to chisel a spiral motif on the largest of the stones, I presume to spice them up a bit. Someone else chiselled it off in outrage. The damage is still evident, though in time, (talking centuries) it will weather in, I suppose. It depends on what you’re looking for, but as a place of quiet contemplation, and a viewpoint overlooking the plain of Lancashire, the Pikestones serves us perfectly well.

So, where does our line in time branch to, now? Well, I’m getting a feeling for Hurst Hill, so we navigate our way up Rushy Brow. This is always a bit vague, the hill itself being hidden over the rise, as yet, and no path. There’s a little visited ring burial here, which is a good way-point, if you can find it, then a heading north of west-ish brings you to the only tarn on this side of the moor, a small, rush fringed eye, smiling blue today, instead of its more familiar thunder-black. A vague sheep trod then contours cleverly towards Hurst Hill, avoiding the worst of the bog.

Hurst Hill

There’s a discreet surveyors mark on the summit, presumably from the very first 1845-47 survey. I found it by accident once, while descending with a low sun that just caught the crows-foot mark, chiselled into a flat rock. I make a point of seeking it out with the aid of GPS, whenever I’m passing this way. The Victorians fixed it by theodolite, and trig tables, and it’s bang on.

Since my last visit, someone else has found it, and covered it with a couple of rocks. It confused me, but it’ll prevent weathering, I suppose, and I left things as they were. So, someone else knows the secret! I wonder what relevance such a mark still has in this modern age. I wonder who the surveyors were who first, and ever so neatly, cut those marks, and what the world was like for them. What was the flavour of their own lines in time?

Normally we’d head east from here, deeper into the bosom of the moor, to the Round Loaf, or Great Hill. But then I’m thinking about the Anglezarke Reservoir, and a graceful trio of oak trees that I know, and some different photographic opportunities, so we branch out west, into another line in time, descending by the old lead mines to the Moor Road.

The mines are interesting. They have the appearance of a bombing run, a line of deep craters in the moor, with heaps of spoil thrown up around them. The surrounding grasses are a striking green, compared with the sour khaki of the moor. They’re crude bell pits, I suppose, eighteenth century, probably, as they were already noted as old, in the mid-nineteenth. Lead is found in vertical veins, so the miners chased it down from the surface as deep as they dared, before their walls caved in. Always a risky occupation, being a miner, but always, too, the siren lure of the mythical mother lode.

From the Moor Road, we choose a path we’ve never walked before, and lose it almost at once. We’re at Siddow Fold, now, a former farm, and gamekeeper’s cottage. Dated 1707, and listed grade 2, it’s seen significant gentrification in recent years, and very beautifully done. The council’s footpath marker guides us confidently enough from the road, and is our quickest route to the reservoir, but it abandons us to our devices in a meadow. I suspect we’re now tangled up in a diversion imposed upon us by the owners, the route deviating markedly from that on the map, and a bit of help would not be amiss, here. Oh well:

Anglezarke Reservoir

We follow our nose, or rather the line of a faint depression in the meadow that appears to be making a beeline for the reservoir. It’s a trespass perhaps, but not my fault. The sparkling ribbon of the reservoir is in full view here, and we meander down towards our trio of oaks, as splendid as I remember them. They’re a good place to sit for a brew, and admire the scene.

So, our line in time today, thus far, brings us here, or at least the line in time I’m aware of. If, as I sometimes like to speculate, at any given branching of the ways, more than one potentiality is realised, in another timeline, we’re also sitting atop the Round Loaf, listening to the larks and the curlews. In another, we gave up at the Pikestones, swung round by Lead Mines Clough, and returned to the car. Even as we sit here, by the sparkling Anglezarke Reservoir, among these magnificent oaks, we’re already driving home, with the top down, through Adlington, perhaps waiting for the lights by the Elephant and Castle.

And then there may be another level, one that grants a view of all the lines in time we ever chose. From this perspective, then, our lives resemble a tree, a proliferation of branches, of lines in time, of all the potentialities we were offered and realised, this being the true fullness of our being. Of course, from a very closed perspective, we’re only ever aware of this one point, moving along this one thread. But sometimes, you get a feeling about the rest.

So, anyway, here we are. We’ve still a couple of miles back to the car, and a variety of ways to choose. I guess at some point, we’ve walked them all before, even the ones we’ve yet to walk, at least in this line of time, if you know what I mean.

Any ideas?

It doesn’t matter much. They’re all good.

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The Dam at Drybones, Birkacre, Coppull

I’ve done something I’d normally advise against. I’ve bought second hand walking boots off Ebay. They’re army surplus, advertised as having seen hardly any use, and it’s true, they’re like new. My Scarpas have been leaking, off and on, and I felt I needed back-up. They look to be a good boot, decent leather, and no inner membrane. So they’re old-school, and, at £45, a bargain. What could possibly go wrong?

On the first try-out, I walked to the local shop, a quarter of a mile or so, and they were so uncomfortable, I thought I was going to have to come back in stocking feet. Anyway, a fresh insole, and here we are at the Birkacre visitor centre, at Coppull, ready to give them another go.

I grew up around here, and it always beggars belief how busy it’s become. It’s a midweek morning, a welcome bit of sunshine, and looks like the world is on holiday. Home to a bleaching and dyeing works in the long ago, all that remains now are the mill lodges, a popular spot for dog walkers, and bird-watchers – not always an easy mix. It’s handy for the carpark, but we need to get beyond the lodge, into Drybones wood, and the horseshoe of the Yarrow, before nature can get to work on us.

Sitting at home, assailed by rocketing energy bills, record petrol prices and news of wars, we can all too easily feel that life is becoming narrow, that the walls are closing in. A walk in the countryside can push the walls back out again.

There’s a dam on the river at Drybones. It was built to raise the water-level to feed the mill race and is very picturesque after heavy rains. Some nights, I would hear the thunder of it from my bedroom as I drifted off to sleep. I always slept with the window open, summer or winter, one ear to the outdoors, to the meadows, the woods and moors beyond. The rumble is still familiar, something deep in the bones, a sense of OM in its eternal reverberation, a reminder of my Coppull years, and home. So far, the boots are doing okay. They’re heavier than the Scarpas, but no hint of blisters, yet.

Around Birkacre Lodge

Beyond the dam, the path meanders past the ruins of Drybones cottage. This is a remote, off-grid place – something to do with the mines here in Victorian times, and which remained firmly in the Victorian period until about fifteen years ago, when it burned down. Since my last visit, the land has been cleared and stoutly fenced off, the path rerouted. The muddy track to the property has also been gravelled – about a half mile of it – presumably for a luxury land-rover.

It’s a lonely spot, and always something dark about it, I felt. I presume someone’s going to develop it into a des-res, but I wouldn’t want to live here. The original house features in my novel Durleston Wood as “the old Willet place”. I picked it for its symbolism at the heart of a mysterious personal darkness, a demon lurking there, to be negotiated, while holding prisoner a femme fatale, whose seduction had to be survived, before we gained redemption – all very Jungian. And while the world has moved on immeasurably since I wrote it, I’m still pondering the story. I remember how much I enjoyed writing it, how deep a connection I felt with the characters, one that seems lacking in my fiction these days.

The lone tree

Beyond Drybones, the path follows the river upstream, through a stretch of woodland that’s just coming into bud now, and we have the first of the anemones about to open. A little later in the season, there’ll be a lush pallet of bluebells, and the pungent, starry alium. We’re on an ancient way that links up with the old Duxbury estate, and which threads by the ancient beech, again featured in “Durleston Wood”, and, more recently, as the fallen tree in my present and forever halting work in progress, “A Lone Tree Falls”.

The latter story is turning out to be a struggle. The characters feel remote, dazed and numb, like they’ve all had the stuffing kicked out of them, since the days of Durlston Wood, and what I’m longing for is the deeper connection of those earlier times.

As I’ve written here before, they’re going to build houses on the meadows around Durleston, because people have to live somewhere, even if the solution is the destruction of the very reason why we live at all. To a town mouse, this might not seem like such an issue, not much of an argument – it’s progress after all, and the world moves on. But speaking as a country mouse, I know there were once spirits here, spirits of place. I’ve talked to them, and knew them as our kin. They are not literally true, of course. They are subliminal, imaginal, but all the same, without them, we are a rootless, soulless people.

The protagonist of my work in progress is a former intelligence analyst, now on the trail of the meaning of his life, but he keeps getting waylaid by the corruption of his former world. I’m not writing a spy story – I wouldn’t know where to start. What I’m trying to do is get at is how we’re so bound up in the complexity of appearances we fail to recognise the simplicity of our path. But as usual, I feel I’m groping towards something I don’t understand well enough to make much of a meaningful accounting of it. All I know is the beech tree was an old friend; I had known it since I was a child. It came down in storms, which seem as metaphorical as real, and since no one saw it fall, it fell without a sound, and the thought of that haunts me.

The Oak Tree, Birkacre

It’s mostly beech in this part of the wood, some sycamore. Coming out of Durleston, though, we see the old oak on the skyline, above the meadow. Another decade or so and it’ll be gone, obscured by the saw-tooth profile of little houses. The tree falls, the spirits flee, and the landscape is smothered, to be retained only briefly in human memory. But then we too fall, and it’s all gone, within a couple of generations, and all of it without a sound; it never was, it never fully existed, except in the eye of the mind, which suggests our imagination alone is the emotive essence of life, so we had better be careful what we do with it.

Not a long walk today. Just three miles round the horseshoe of the Yarrow. We leave Durleston, and imagination behind, return to Birkacre to the Big Lodge, to the carousel of dog walkers, and bird-watchers, and kiddies feeding ducks, and back to the car. The boots feel okay, I’d forgotten they were there, actually. You know what? I think they’ll do.

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