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dovecrag

Dovedale

We were later than we should have been, the small blue car and I, slipping over the Kirkstone, already midmorning and by now meeting the tourist coaches lumbering up from Patterdale. We met one at the Inn, at that bit where the tarmac narrows by the Struggle down to Ambleside, a giant German tour-whale, incumbents all filming my humble passing. Thus I imagine myself now immortalised, part of the scenery, a silver fox in an old MX5. There are worse ways to be remembered, I suppose,…

Exotic it must seem, the Kirkstone Pass, to a continental European, as exotic as the Lauterbrunnen sounds to me, a northern Brit, still a die-hard European, though chastened now by this eternal BREXIT thing. All is relative,… or so they say. How many times over the Kirkstone now? Must be into the hundreds. Familiarity in this case though clearly does not breed contempt, for there is still the sense, as Patterdale opens ahead of the tumbling little road, of a spiritual homecoming.

I am here to climb Dove Crag.

So,… Cow Bridge at 11:45, and we pull into the last parking spot. It’s more than we deserve at this hour, so it’s fated, reserved for us by Providence perhaps and therefore a good omen. It’s a blistering hot day, mid-June, wide open sky of Cerulean blue, but a distinct lack of air, and a surplus of humidity. I’m thinking it’ll be better at altitude, but that’s a couple of hours away, the mad dogs and Englishmen hours, and I’m not convinced I’m going to make it that far, me feeling old and drained and unpracticed with my mountain mojo these days. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I lost mine a long time ago and, trust me, Dove Crag is not the best place to try to find it again.

But still,….

dovecrag2

Dove Crag

It’s grown famous of late, Dove Crag, on account of the Priest’s Hole, a slot of a cave, high on the face of the crag, indeed this must now be the most famous secret spot in Britain after being on the telly and gaining mention in travel articles for the urban selfie hungry. I have no desire to further advertise it here, except to say it’s also a dangerous place to get to, and I had no desire to join the surge of casualties, including fatalities, in recent years, making pilgrimage. We think of England as a cotton wool cosseted place, health and safety numpty’s tut-tutting everywhere and always someone to sue with our ambulance chasing no win no fee solicitors, if we so much as stub our toe. But the mountains aren’t like that, even English ones.

Anyway, a promising start was made with a glorious opening stroll along the shores of Brothers’ Water, where, I swear, a pair of sweetly rounded ladies were skinny dipping and giggling joyously like nymphs – I admit I may already have been hallucinating in anticipation of hardships higher up the fell. But even without the water-nymphs the approach to Dovedale is seductive in its loveliness, gentle on the legs too, at least as far as the first of the falls. The falls are a good place to gather breath and wits, because beyond them the going is much harder, and it has a darker vibe about it as the fells close in and the ferns give way to rock.

I seemed to have no power in the legs at all. At the first of the falls, reduced now to a trickle by drought, I paused a good long while, eyes already sweat-stung, hat dripping, shirt-soaked and my head befuddled by a cloud of horse-flies. One of them got me on the back of the hand which provided little by way of encouragement. The pack felt impossibly heavy with weatherproof gear, unlikely to be needed, but foolish to leave behind.

I had barely the spring to get back on my feet, and my legs felt like they were not my own, my feet pointing backwards and about as sure footed as a drunkard. I was encouraged though by vague memories of other walks, where the legs slowly warm and you find your pace, and the breath to keep you going. I stopped a lot on the way, drank a lot of water, talked to myself.

In Wainwright’s day the last bit onto the shoulder of Dove Cag was all loose rock and scree – must have been a nightmare of a pull, and Wainwright, this prolific pipe-smoker, never seeming short of breath. Now its a precipitous, spiralling staircase of set stone and all beautifully crafted to blend into the natural tumble of rock. I was just about able to haul myself up it, and then it was on to the summit, where all was dry as bones and not a soul for miles.

dovecrag3

Dove crag summit

Normally the legs would recover now, and I’d be able to pick up the pace, regain some spring, but Dove Crag had given me a good hiding in the heat, and it was plain it didn’t matter how long I rested by that cairn, I’d be finishing the day on what was left, and it wasn’t much. I’d passed this way a few times before, on circuits of the Fairfield Horseshoe, but those days were long gone, like the youth who’d casually burned the miles in gale force winds and horizontal rain. No,… I was never so robust or bold in the fells, and any of that this afternoon and I was going to die up here. But the day was utterly stunning in its clarity, like a near death vision of an idealised afterlife – and all the fells gathered round of course, their names returning to me as I decoded their profiles from dusty archives. I’m  sure I’m not the only ageing fell walker to have dreamed of a post popped-clogg world like this and the legs to do it justice.

I headed eastwards along the Fairfield route, a fine section of breathtaking views, probably the best weather I’ve ever had up there, and the mountains catching the sun, slanting sleepy shadows into the deep dales and the ravines and raising something of the old mojo magic of the Lakes for me. But I had miles to go and feet for very few of them, and just another good swallow of water left in the bottle. Perhaps I amplify the hardship, but I was painfully aware one slip-up with navigation bringing me down into the wrong valley, and I’d nothing in reserve to correct it. But on such a clear day it would be hard to miss the path for Patterdale.

brotherswater

Patterdale

I skirted the summit crown of Little Hart Crag, too far gone to waste what bit of breath I’d got on petty peak bagging. Instead I gained the gently undulating ridge towards High Hartsop Dodd, set my head to the task. This was supposed to be a four-hour round, according to the guides. It was going to take me five. But who’s counting? Here, as you crest the last rise, the tip of the fell points like a prehistoric arrow-head down the length of Patterdale, Brothers’ Water blue as the sky amid the multifaceted green of the dale, and the heart swells with delight that there can be such places as beautiful as this, and surely I have known and loved it for more than just the one life-time, for it to have such a profound affect upon the senses.

Yes, it was worth the walk, and the sweat, to say nothing of the emptying of myself to see that view – that last gift of the way before the way plummeted with a brutal steepness to the valley bottom, a twisting slalom of a route, hard on the knees and jelly-legs. Thus I descended like a fragile centenarian, alpine sticks deployed Zimmer fashion, progress slow and cautious. I could see where the car was parked, miles away; I felt it might as well have been on the moon.

The water nymphs had gone, sadly, when, with feet on fire, I made my way back along the shore of Brothers Water, pausing to allow myself a moment of respite where they had bathed themselves. Divested of boots and socks and paddling out gingerly over the pebbles, that blessed water gave me back the mile still remaining to the car, and I returned at last to my reward: that post-walk mindful calm sunk deep into the bones.

It was a memorable day, as all walking days are in the Lakes, and a triumph too, of sorts, but also a reminder of the advance of years and how the fells demand a high degree of fitness, a toughness in the gut, a resilience in the legs, to say nothing of leathered feet. I can accept the ultimate defeat of advancing years, am sanguine about it in many ways, but as I sat on the terrace of the Brother’s Water Inn, sipping on a cold Lime and Soda, first light of evening coming on, I swear Dove Crag was smiling, telling that time was not yet near, telling me also well done, lad, and Dylan Thomas, whispering in my ear, you know,… that line about not going gently into the good night!

She can be a stern mistress, this fell country of ours, but I know of nothing, no other corner of England more inspirational, more building of self-confidence, nor more rewarding to the spirit. Yes, a tough old walk for one grown so lazy of late, also a wake-up call, and a promise that I’ll not leave it so long next time.

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malham tarn

Malham Tarn

It was a good day for a wedding on Saturday. I note the Capital was considerably taken up with it, streets lined with people waving their little Union Jacks at the happy couple. Celebrities from around the world descended in their finery. There was pomp and ceremony and tradition, as only the British can deliver it, and I’m informed a good day out was had by all.

I missed it. I was up around Malham, in company with most of the north of England, who’d had the same idea. Perhaps we each selfishly thought the roads would be quieter, that everyone else would be at home, glued to the telly, but I’ve never seen Malham as busy, and this before midmorning when I rolled up in the little blue car to find an atmosphere of celebration. I say this every time I go to Malham, that I’ve never seen it so busy. Best to go early, crack of dawnish, even midweek. But there was no big event, certainly no big screen coverage of the capital’s shenanigans. Everyone had simply gone up for a walk, or a picnic, or to sit outside the Buck with something cold and fizzy, and watch the world go by.

Malham sits at the foot of one of the classic walks in the British Isles, a circular route of limestone country that’s by turns fearsomely dramatic, and heart-stoppingly beautiful. It’s rightly popular, also a small wonder it can take this amount of foot traffic every weekend without wearing away.

I couldn’t park in the village itself and was reluctant to commit to the overflow field, so drove on up to the Tarn where I got the last spot on the little car park. But the as the area’s popularity soars exponentially, the driving is becoming dangerous. The road up is single track and steep. I can thread the little blue car along mostly anything and she’s plenty of guts for a climb, but it’s what you meet along the way that’s the problem. And you’re meeting more and more traffic these days, a lot of it inappropriate for the girth of the road. I met a Renault Kadjar. This is a huge vehicle. I wouldn’t take a bus up here, and I wouldn’t take a Kadjar for the same reasons. I managed to pull in, narrowly avoiding the drystone walls, to let it pass. It wasn’t for stopping and the driver didn’t seem able to manoeuvre it much anyway – just kept going sluggishly and expecting everyone else to move out of the way.

Then I met the cyclists, weaving about, doing one mile an hour crawling up this one in ten gradient ahead of me. The little blue car won’t do one mile an hour uphill, it judders and bucks on the clutch, but you can’t roar past because the road’s too narrow and you’re worried about meeting Kadjars around the blind bends. You have to wait for the straight bits, then floor it and hope for the best. I have the feeling recreational cyclists don’t fully appreciate the risks they take in places like this, nor the hazards they create for others, or they would stow their egos and their single-minded battle with the grade, get off their push-hogs and let us poor motorists pass on little roads like this.

The tarn is the northernmost checkpoint of the full circular walk, and I wondered about doing it in reverse, but this puts the steepest of climbs towards the end, besides it was a hot day and I couldn’t be bothered. I wanted to soak up the atmosphere of the Dales without soaking myself in sweat, so I took a stroll, by the tarn, which was impossibly blue under an equally impossibly blue sky. Then I headed down to Malham Cove, along the Trougate track. At the cove it was standing room only among the clints and grikes, and the cacophony was reminiscent of any mass social gathering in an echoey place.

I returned along the spectacular Watlowes dry valley. Three or four miles all told. Lazy I know, and such a short outing wouldn’t have satisfied my younger self much, but times change and I’m as excited these days by the sight of early flowering purple orchid as I am by the ascent of Goredale. Conditions were outstanding, but sadly walkers were too many, clogging the trails, either powering up behind, sucking impatiently on their Platipus Packs, or loitering in front for selfies along the narrow bits. But I was happy to be out in the sun, celebrating the season, celebrating the country, taking my turn on the steps, calling hello in passing to pleasant strangers. And no one here was waving a Union Jack.

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mazda at glassonThe last Friday of February is the one that usually kicks off my year, and for the past four years I’ve been travelling to the little Lancashire port of Glasson to walk the same section of the coastal way from Bank End Farm, on the spectacular Cockerham Marsh. There’s an element of groundhog day to this outing, underlined by the uncanny similarity of the weather on each occasion – temperature just above freezing, clear skies, wintry sun , and a light but bitterly cold wind blowing in off the sea. Today is no exception, but there’s a difference in the air, a subtle nuance – call it imagination, call it superstition, but I have a feeling this run is coming to a close now, that next year will be different. It has to be. Everything must change if it is to remain true, and whatever does not change cannot be true, thus I’m picking up an element of fantasy to the day which, although pleasant enough, cannot be entirely trusted.

The Mazda was reluctant after a very cold few weeks in the garage, and very little exercise over winter, the engine catching only at the last minute as the battery faded to nothing. Then the ABS warning light remained on throughout the outward journey – brakes were fine, so most likely a problem with the anti-lock sensor. It’s a thing with Mazdas. There’s also a grand’s worth of repairs necessary to her bodywork if I decide to keep her beyond this year. I have the sense she’s reminding me of her mortality. It’s all fixable but she’s a second car, not my main driver, and all of this seems a bit extravagant and unnecessary, especially in the current oppressively austere zeitgeist. It’s a pity because I love the car like no other I’ve owned, and we’ve had some fun, but she’s sixteen years old now, coming up on ninety thousand, and she isn’t going to last for ever. That’s just another fantasy.

Still, for all of our antiquity, we pick up a tail on the way, a Mercedes SLK, brand new. This happens a lot. Last time, as I recall, it was a Maserati. These supercars growl up close, like predatory animals, glue themselves aggressively to the bumper, then, at the first opportunity pull out wide and disappear in a cloud of dust and noise, and all in order to prove their willy is bigger than mine. Now the Mazda is a lively little thing, but the sense of her is mostly internal. She’s also worth next to nothing. That she attracts such attention is laughable, not flattering, and do I really want us to go on being the foil for this particular kind of conspicuous consumption?

The Mazda sighs impatiently at such class-warriorish ruminations, rattles up to Glasson and deposits us on the carpark at the marina. Here we leave her to admire the view, the basin running like burnished silver this morning, boats nodding at their moorings. We tog up and set out on the familiar way, first of all calling in Glasson’s gorgeous canal-side Parish Church to admire the spill of light through stained glass, and to see if there are any good second hand books for sale on the stall at the back. Today there are none that take my fancy, so on we go.

cockerham farmThe walk first takes us south across sodden meadows as far as the lush fractal patterned marsh at Cockerham, from where we pick up the coastal way. Winter wet has left the meadows heavy, and they are slow to drain. Migratory swans pepper the green sward, settling there to rest, and forage. They are not gregarious birds and spread themselves out into introspective, moody dots of white, their grumpy honking a reminder to steer clear. We pick up the more cheerful sound of waders down on the marsh, mostly Oyster Catchers and Curlew piping. There’s a Plover doing acrobatics across the emerald meadow, pee-witting as it goes, and then as we cross the causeway we are treated to the most astonishing display – a vast murmuration of starlings rises from its roost around the farm and swirls a living spiral in the air.

Unlike other birds en-mass which we tend to view from afar, Starlings are an easier treat for the photographer performing it would seem for our pleasure at much closer range, and quite exhilarating . It’s a whirring buzzing chattering shriek of a thing, a pointed cloud swooping and soaring like a single living entity, drawn into strange, pulsing patterns and made entirely of tens of thousands of birds. I am so astonished that by the time I remember the camera, I manage only the weakest of shots as the birds move north.

plover scar lightThe Plover scar light, broken last year after being struck by a ship, is now repaired and looking like new. I try a few shots but the light is suddenly flat and I need a longer lens to do it justice. And the narrow passage across Jansen Pool, where I nearly had to swim in order to complete the walk last year, is now repaired so the path can be followed without risk to dignity. Then there’s just the last long quagmire of Marsh lane and its ancient line of hawthorns, twisted into fantastic wind-blasted shapes, and we’re back – another completed round of Glasson and Cockerham, on the last Friday of February.

Image5It remains only for us to take lunch in the Lantern o-er Lune, from whose brightly lit interior we shelter from the biting wind, and pretend it is a summer’s day. Tasty Cumberland Sausage Panini and a gorgeous salad soothes our lunchtime cravings. Over coffee we gaze out at the water, and we contemplate this particularly lovely and ancient part of Lancashire. Meanwhile the Mazda catches the sun. She looks ever so lovely out there, even shaded and lined as she is by the mud and salt of winter.

Okay, so here’s what we’ll do: We’ll get the ABS repaired first, then see if she’ll squeeze through the MOT into next year without the bodywork doing. It’s a good call, and she rewards us by putting out the ABS light on the way home.

Who says living magically makes no sense?

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white coppice cottages

The White Coppice Cottages

Sometimes we get stuck in a groove, doing the same old things, visiting the same old places, but even when we think we know a place well, there is still the opportunity for fresh discovery, always another path we can take.

So today we’re tackling the Black Coppice Quarries, just a short walk from the lovely hamlet of White Coppice, nestling in a fold at the edge of the  West Pennine Moors. I have not done this particular route before. It will eventually deliver us up to a trackless expanse of moor, one that’s vaguely familiar to me, but by a kind of back door, and I’m not sure where to go after that. It’s past mid afternoon, and these February days are short, shadows already lengthening. It’s not the best time for mucking about but I’m sure we’ll be okay.

great hill from the white coppice cairn

Anglezarke Moor

It’s a little used route and all too soon vanishes into a lonely amphitheatre of gritstone crag and scree that echoes strangely. We choose a likely looking ridge, clear of the precipice – just a faint path worn through the heather, enough to inspire confidence we are not merely following sheep. The afternoon is clear, the sunshine almost warm. The outlook from the ridge is spectacular with vistas across lush green farmland running down to the Lancashire plain, and the sea glittering beyond. The light is tending towards amber now, the sun about to send shadows leaping from the ditches and hedgerows.

unfinished millstone above the quarries at white coppice

Abandoned millstone – Anglezarke Moor

We pick up the line of a stout fence that bounds the precipice and, after a breathy climb, delivers us up to Anglezarke Moor. There’s a megalithic structure just here, a rock slab tilted up a little from the horizontal, resting on stones. It doesn’t look much but an archaeological survey in the eighties has it down as a chambered cairn – a bronze age burial.

I’m not sure. That the moor hereabouts is also dotted with abandoned millstones lends sufficient room for doubt. Some are in their earliest stages of manufacture, just a few taps of the chisel, others almost finished, evidence of months of labour in the wide open, all wasted when the market for such things collapsed.

So, is this an ancient burial, or a stone merely propped up, ready to be worked by quarrymen? The ancients favoured west facing escarpments for their funerary rites, which makes this the perfect spot, ritualised daily by the setting sun. Romanticism and geomancy favour the former then, but there’s still magic in the latter, all be it of a lesser vintage. Imagination swells to fill the blanks, adds layers of psyche to the deadness of mere geography, and we wonder,….

grain pole hill

Grain Pole Hill

But speaking of the sun, time is short, so we head towards Grain Pole Hill, some nine hundred feet above the sea, distinguished from the moor by its dark cap of heather above the paler whispering grasses. There’s no path here and the grass is deeply hummocked – a tough stretch, heavy on the legs and sweaty now, but not far until we gain the easier going of the ridge that takes us more swiftly south, to the summit.

There was once a cairn here, a stone man, visible for miles. I once spent an afternoon tidying him up, raising him to a shapely little cone. But he’s gone now, and so have the stones – not merely fallen aside, but spirited away, perhaps one by one by pilgrims heading east, to the shaggy dome of Hurst Hill and the newly massive cairn that’s been raised there. The stone men move around up here, you see? And the ways they mark shift slowly over time.

way cairn

Waycairn – Anglezarke

The day is too short to visit Hurst Hill. Maybe next time. Instead, we discover a newly raised cairn to the south and from here we make out a route taking us west, downhill, into the sun, picking its way along a line of trial shafts – bell-pits most likely – just dimples in the moor now, like a run of aerial bombing craters. They are surrounded by the spoil thrown up, and there’s lush green grass, in contrast to the normal dun colour of the moor. Already ancient at the time of the first ordnance surveys, they straddle a fault line where minerals are manifested in the earth by unimaginable pressures. They have found lead here, also Barium, Galena, Witherite and Copper,…

But nowadays this line of shafts serves only to lead us unerringly down to Moor Road, to the access point by Siddow Fold. It’s a promising little path, attractive in its turns and in its timeless use of cairns, set against the sky to guide. But these old stone men have a habit of moving about, so its as well to have a feel for the land yourself, taking their advice if they’re of a mind to give it, while not relying on them too much, because they may not be there next time.

watermans

Waterman’s Cottage – Anglezarke

The little road snakes us down to the tip of the Anglezarke reservoir, to the Waterman’s mock Tudor Cottage, once such a lure for the camera with its reflections in black water, and still a pretty subject but looking now like it’s in need of work. Here, a long, deep-puddled path takes us back to White Coppice. The light is golden, the shadows running, and the air stilling down in preparation for the coming of darkness. We have not walked more than three miles, but it’s a journey that’s opened up fresh avenues in the dense forest of imagination.

In certain esoteric philosophies it is said we are destined to repeat our lives over and over, word for word, step by step, unless we can wake up to the process sufficient to say, hold on, what about this path over here? So we should always keep an eye open for the paths we have overlooked. No matter how well we think we know a place, there’s always something else to be gleaned. Like those mysteriously moving stone men, we just shift our focus a bit, and our lives, like the land under our feet takes on an unsuspected freshness, newly rich in meaning and direction.

path to white coppice

To White Coppice – West Pennines

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marsh lane

December morning,
sluggish dawn,
of greys and greens,
and mist and mud,
where water weeps
into long hollows,
and pools like eyes,
which lidless gaze
at still sleepy skies.
And the ways,
heavy under foot,
slow my passing,
and would arrest me,
arms outstretched,
gnarled fingers grasping air,
lifeless as the hawthorn,
bare and dripping drops,
of silver dew.

 

 

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linton falls

Linton Falls on the River Wharfe

I’d planned to walk on the western coast, Morecambe bay, from Arnside maybe, but the Met office suggested moving the itinerary east a bit to avoid drowning in the tail end of a tropical storm hurled clean across the Atlantic. So the Dales it was and a brief window of opportunity that closed around tea time. Here I enjoyed calm and intermittent blue skies punctuated by showers and dramatic clouds, which eventually thickened over Grassington to a uniform steel grey and a more persistent rain.

The falls at Linton have become a bit of a magnet of late, my third visit this year. £4.50 for the day on the little National Park Authority car park – expensive in these still straightened times, but still half the price of a day’s walk in the Lakes. A week’s rains had swollen the Wharfe to thunderous proportion. People drive for miles for these falls, go no further, and who can blame them? There is falling water everywhere, and a fine wooden bridge to carry you into its most spectacular and sonorous midst. All falls are a draw, each of unique character, and blessed with a spirit of place. At Linton the spirit is that of dragons.

But today the falls were admired only in passing as I made my way up-river. I followed heavy paths to begin, over lush cattle churned meadow, then finally a bit of narrow lane that dropped me down to Conistone and the Dib.

the wharfe

The Wharfe, near Conistone

Limestone country throws up some odd landscape features, none more curious than the Dib, a narrow nick between steep rock  and a secret passage into the higher green beyond. It’s the former course of a beck, now long disappeared, but bears evidence of thunderous erosion in ancient times. It also affords some light scrambling, and a sporting route up onto the Dales way. I last walked its course thirty years ago, thought I remembered the Dib fairly well, but it turns out I didn’t. When I was young, it was those simple little scrambles that fascinated, and I tacked them all together in memory, leaving out a vast and lovely lost vale that separates the beginning bit from the end.

Today it was the vale that most impressed.

dibbs

The Conistone Dib

After scrambling out of the Dib we find ourselves on the Dales Way, just here a gorgeous broad green path that leads you back to Grassington and the Falls – a round of eight and a half miles, and then a couple of days for my bones to recover from the pummelling of wild footways.

There was a peculiar scent on the Dales way. I was upwind of a large group of kids who’d spent days wandering the Dales with big packs, doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s. A charming chatty lot they were too, in spite of being mud-caked and looking like they were ready for a brew, and collectively smelling like,… well, like human beings, sweated by long exertion, and who’d not had the pleasure of a bath for a bit. They looked weary, but determined, and in good humour. I admired their grit, was heartened to discover there are still lions among our youth – sufficient I trust to see off the donkeys who shall oppress them in their near future with tick sheets and performance reviews. So roar! Roar my little ones, roar like you mean it.

The Dales way descends some four miles, gradually to Grassington. This is limestone and green sward at its best, and views out across the Wharfe to Cracoe Fell, and a walk I did one frost dusted morning last December. Scent of mud here, and moorland sedge, something metallic in it, and then rain as the dramatically darkening clouds burst and the wind stiffens to the coming storm’s refrain.

I continue to follow my nose as the scent of the farm comes up at me, a good mile off yet, but the air sweetened with the unmistakable aroma of cattle en-masse, and midden. And then it’s the slick cobbles of Grassington and the scent of coffee and beer and chips. I’ve yet to see Grassington in the dry, but no matter. The rain does not spoil it. It’s going the tourist way in parts of course, but retains a certain gritty charm. And so long as people still live here, and the holiday cottages do not outnumber them, I see no reason yet for alarm.

on the dales way

On the Dales Way

I wash the mud off my boots in a puddle by the car, peel off the waterproof trousers, roll them up and put them in the slowly decaying carrier bag I’ve kept them in for years. My knee delivers a warning stab as I slip off the boots – reminder of an old injury, result of a bed and a flight of stairs and an overestimation of ability. That was years ago, the injury I presume a feature I take forward now.

And driving home I wonder how I’ll remember this walk in another thirty years. I wonder too about the importance of the accuracy of recall, when our mind so easily bends things over time to its own ends, and to a mere precis of past moments. It’s can’t be that important, since it did not stop me from carrying a fondness for this place, nor a desire one day to return.

I’d better not leave it another thirty years or I’ll be eighty seven.

Still, I might just manage it.

We’ll see.

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wordsworthTwo by two they marched into St Oswald’s churchyard, the entire complement of a seventy seater coach. At their head a suited guide, complete with microphone, broadcast his authoritative commentary over the ethereal hush. It was a vast entourage of American tourists, well heeled and,… damn, they were heading in our direction, seeking Wordsworth’s grave. It was a bold flanking manoeuvre, completely overwhelming us few native poetry bums who had gathered there. We took a deep breath, prepared to stand our ground, prepared also for our politeness to scatter us into the shadows.

There were a lot of American accents in Grasmere this afternoon and a busy-busy atmosphere pervading the early autumnal air. In the cafe queue, earlier, I’d been pressed aside by an assertive and impressively articulate dude complaining his sandwich was taking a long time and that he was under “very considerable time constraint”. This poor guy was on holiday, but he was still caught up in the world of work, in the achievement culture. I recognised his accent, his idiosyncratic use of language. It pinpointed him squarely in the nether geography of performance reviews, and endless Powerpoint presentations. I wondered if he was in this queue now, the queue for Wordsworth’s grave, a similar time constraint weighing heavy – Dove cottage and the visitor centre yet to be ticked off. And boy, there were so many graves with Wordsworth’s name written on them. Thank heavens for the tour guide and his live-broadcast commentary to home in on the essentials.

I moved on as the guide came up pointing out the poet’s resting place. Sadly he was pointing to the wrong William. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I would have expected better research from one so prepossessing as this. Willy (1810-1883), had not followed in his father’s (1770-1850) poetic footsteps, but on reflection the faux pas didn’t matter, at least not in the world inhabited by these poor souls. They had done the grave thing, ticked the box. Most would probably not remember and somehow it all meshed perfectly with the achievement culture thing: Britain by tick-box, the myth of old Englandism: a vibrant, if at times raggedy and fiercely intellectual nation reduced to no more than frock coats, bustles and Mr Darcy’s wet trousers.

To think, poor William and his family have to put up with this sort of thing every day!

I have a difficult relationship with Wordsworth. I read him like all fan-boys as if looking for the key to my own enlightenment. I do find him occasionally profound, but also pompous and immensely verbose. He walked the fells as feverishly as I walked them in my younger days, but at a time when they were not so worn out, when the paths were vague, known only to shepherds, and orange peel did not litter the summits. But the Victorians in all their chocolate box glory were also notable that in their fondness for the sublime they also had a penchant for bludgeoning it to death with words whenever it put in an appearance.

Other philosophers, of the Zen Tradition, in lands far away, had already worked out one could not define the sublime by rich, eloquent and, above all, copious wordery. The poet Basho is a case in point, writing two centuries earlier than Wordsworth, and with a stunning brevity, his Haiku verses connected the human mind with the sublime without attempting to describe it. When words fail us, it’s for a reason and it’s best at that point just to shut up and let nature fill the space in our heads.

But when our heads are enamoured of the schedule and all those dubious measures of achievement, when we are for ever under the cosh of “considerable time constraint”, it’s really all the same if it’s Willy or William we’re looking at because by then the truth is of no consequence and bluff and fakery will suffice perfectly well instead for fact.

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