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penyghent from horton irThere were three events at Horton in Ribblesdale on Saturday. I’m not sure what they were exactly but I assume each involved a lot of boots scrambling over the Dales’ three peaks – Penyghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. It also meant the carparks were pretty much filled up by mid-morning. It was a relief to find somewhere to leave the car on the overflow.

You can usually see Penyghent from Horton. It resembles the prow of a mighty ship, sailing a rolling green ocean of moor over Brackenbottom, but not today. It was in a strop over something, possibly all the attention it was getting. There was a riot outside the cafe, start of the three peaks route, an army of excited children, hundreds of them, squealing at a pitch fit to burst eardrums while their minders bellowed instructions. An optimistic notice on the wall urged a more respectful tone in consideration of neighbours. I hope none of them were trying to lie in that morning, let alone nursing hangovers.

Better get cracking then. The last thing I wanted was to get stuck at the back of that lot. I managed a ten minute start before I heard them swarming up the track behind me. It was a more strenuous ascent of the hill than I’m used to then, one lacking the luxuries I normally allow myself of lots of pauses to admire the view and take photographs. I would have let them pass, but there were other armies of pixies, elves and dwarves all mustering in the rear and it would have taken the entire day.

The route ahead was also very busy, in particular there were jams of jittery folk on all the craggy bits below the summit plateau, and then a walking day procession along the paved way to the trigpoint. More squealing children awaited my arrival there, while a party of crusty old curmudgeons cracked open a whisky bottle and splashed out generous measures of amber comfort. It was an eclectic gathering for sure, ages ranging from five to eighty five, the atmosphere one of festival, of celebration. There is no other hill like Penyghent on a weekend afternoon.

Starting out overcast, the weather had turned a bit edgy, a light breeze at valley level stiffening to a bitter easterly. I crouched on the leeward side of the wall, some distance away from the merriment. The wind was blowing clean through it, chilling the sweat on my back, so I used the sack as a windbreak and caught my breath at last – long slow breaths, filling my lungs with that musty, muddy, metallic air of the high places.

Then the army of elves, pixies and dwarves caught up, and the summit was lost to madness as they over-ran it. Time to move on. I pressed, squished and excused my way through the crowd to get anywhere near the stile, then queued for my turn to get over it. Ahead of me, crocodile after crocodile of three peakers headed west into the wind-blown mist, jackets flapping like lubberly spinnakers all along the well trodden way to Whernside. How a mountain can take such punishment as this, day in day out and remain beautiful, I don’t know. If you like your mountains quiet, and Penyghent’s still on your bucket list, come mid week, term-time, and come early.

Three Peakers are a mixed bunch and, yes, they make me grumble. It’s this apparent blindness to the metaphysical dimension of the hills, for how can they be tuned in to that when half of them have phones glued to their ears? They come to do battle, while for me a walk is more of a cooperative endeavour between oneself, the mood of the hill, and the weather. Still, I do admire their grit. I didn’t follow them, I headed north instead, along the line of the wall into a high moorland wilderness, towards the more sublime, summitless solitude of Plover Hill.

Plover Hill is Penyghent’s quieter, less intrusive neighbour. If we include it in our day’s outing it makes for a more significant leg-stretcher, the round from Horton being then a shade under ten miles. It also affords time for a more peaceful contemplation of the Dales. I did not meet a soul again until crossing the three peaks route once more, above Horton.

Conservation work has improved the descent from Plover Hill, which had begun to scar quite badly, recent rock-paving bringing us safely down to the broad valley that carries the Foxup road, a lonely, pathway, linking the villages of Foxup and Horton. If you’re looking to put some miles between yourself and the next person – even on a busy summer’s weekend in the Dales, Plover Hill and the Foxup Road are a good place to start.

Back at Horton, feet on fire by now, I was ready for a brew but the cafe was still besieged by screaming pixies. They looked too fresh to be returning, but couldn’t be setting off so late in the day, the whole three peaks round having to be completed in under 12 hours if you want your badge, and rather them than me, I thought. I gave them a wide berth, retrieved the car from the sheep plopped meadow, and drove to Settle for a more restful pot of tea and a toasted teacake at the Naked Man.

Early retirement from the rat-race features ever greater in my plans these days as the light at the end of my personal tunnel of captivity grows brighter. I have wondered about the Dales villages, of downsizing, of nesting up in an old stone cottage within sight and sound and easy access to these beautiful hills. It’s an idle fancy for now. I’m probably better where I am, just driving in as needs be, but if I did decide to do it, I wouldn’t be moving to Horton in Ribblesdale.

Simply too many boots on the ground these days.

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It was not the best day to be visiting Malham. There was a hill-run or something and every parking place was taken. Runners, brightly attired jogged off up the fells and officials with their hi-vis jackets and windmill arms directed traffic. Thus my humble plans for a walk around the fabled cove were scuppered for having nowhere to ditch the car.

Malham’s the sort of place you don’t arrive at in passing. It’s a long drive in, and a long drive out to anywhere else, so walking from another venue looked like it was off the menu as well. But the sun was shining, I was in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales on the first warm day of the year, and I had the top down on the little blue car, so there was no way this could be described as unfortunate. I simply needed a fresh plan for the day and I decided on a drive.

I know, I’d already driven about sixty miles to get to Malham, most of that along the arterial A59. But driving like that’s hardly a pleasure – more of an A to B kind of thing, and not altogether healthy in an open-topped car. I’ve seen the A59 from altitude during a winter-time inversion, the length of it overhung with a sickly brown haze, which is why nowadays I keep the top on as far as Gisburn.

No, what I meant was a different kind of drive.

I took the little road from Malham across the tops to Arncliffe. Initially tortuous as you climb from the village, the road settles to a smooth narrow ribbon snaking through a fine, scenic wilderness, one where roadside parking is prohibited. The narrow upland routes, and the little passes of the Yorkshire Dales provide some of the finest driving you can imagine – single track roads threading across spectacular dun coloured tops, bristling with limestone outcrops bright white in the sun. It’s almost a lost concept, the pleasure of a drive, I mean as our roads clog up and everything becomes urbanised as the built world squeezes out the green, and that brown haze spreads to overhang and poison more and more of everything.

Imagine if you can, simply enjoying the feel of a vehicle in motion, the white noise of tyres over rough tarmac, snicking up and down the gears to catch her on the hairpins, the sweet vibrato note of the exhaust echoing from drystone walls, then the sudden cut to silence as you rattle over the cattle grid and emerge into an open wilderness. And there’s the scent of it – clean air, hills, grasslands, rocks, running water.

It is a poetic experience, and you can still find it here.

The little blue car is an old MX5, with 85k on the clock, a cheap roadster, picked up second or third hand. We’re embarking on our fourth season together now, seasons of ease and smiles. The little road made me smile, the purr of the car as it took the hills made me smile, her tenacious grip on the bends made me smile, the sunlight glinting off Malham tarn made me smile, the deep, sublime cut of Yew Cogar Scar near Arncliffe made me smile. There was a lightness to my being as I drove, having quite forgotten I’d set out that morning with the intention of walking, and had failed.

I paused at Linton, sitting in warm sunshine on the banks of the Wharfe, by the falls. There I ate lunch, lingered by the ancient stepping stones, lulled into a meditative calm by the wash of the river. A guy was fly-fishing in the midst of a mirror-black pool where the river swings wide and into shade. Then I drove home,… and it struck me again, coming back once more to the roar of the arterial A59, the unwholesome, diesel stench of it, and the contrast with the peace and the unhindered clarity of the Dales. It emphasised at what dreadful cost the built world turns.

Along the urban byways and highways, everywhere we look we see the imposition of our thoughts in our shaping of the environment. There are attempts at beauty in architecture, but too often also a waste of graffitied despair, overhung by this brown haze as hope dissolves to premature corruption. Only where the A roads do not yet penetrate, where the way remains narrow, can we still squeeze through, slip back into an earlier time, and to an England where the land lies less marked, less troubled by our troubled thinking.

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Mazda Glasson Feb 16Doris they called it, the storm I mean. We caught the scythe edge of it on Thursday as it advanced across the North, laid the grass flat and rippling in shivery silver waves. It pulled down trees and masonry too. It was looking a bit doubtful for my trip to Glasson Marina then, this last Friday of February. It would have made it four years in a row and on each occasion enjoying the harbingers of spring – soft sunshine, snowdrops and crocuses, and hares gambolling in the lush green meadows between Glasson and Cockerham.

Ah, well.

But come Friday Doris has moved her quietly watchful eye over the North, blessed us now with a brief, eerie calm, and several hours of clear blue. So, I wake the Mazda from her hibernation, and we head up the M6 to Lancaster, and Glasson.

The ticket machine at the marina is broken. It always is. There’s a number to ring so you can pay to park your car by phone but the number is broken too. It was broken last time, I recall. It’s only a pound all day , and I don’t begrudge it. I want to pay, but there is not the means of doing so. So, I tie on my boots, put on my winter layers and set off amid a gnawing anxiety about returning to find the Mazda slapped with a cunningly constructed penalty notice – this happens every time – the anxiety I mean, not the penalty notice.

I’m a little spooked by this weather. Four years in a row, this day has repeated itself, weather and all, this annual pilgrimage to the port of Glasson. It’s not a groundhog experience – more complicated than that. I live my life as normal all year, but on this one day, the last Friday of February, I step back into the same day, like an eternal recurrence.

cockeham-stoneOn this occasion, I am also on a mission. Last year, just along the coast here, I’d found a smooth-worn piece of standstone. Unremarkable you might say except this stone had once been part of the Abbey, long since demolished and recycled into the sea defences. It granted the stone a certain intangible, esoteric value and I’d made a promise with the abbey’s ghosts – I’ll take this home for luck, because its shape pleases me, I’ll keep it on my desk, turning it meditatively as I ponder my muse, then I’ll return it to the sea a year from now.

So here we are again. Same day, somehow slipped out of time – even a storm abated to make way, so I can keep my promise.

From the Marina we head out along the canal to the first bridge, pausing a while at the Christ’s Church, glowing in the the early morning sun, and we admire its displays of snowdrops and crocuses. Then from the bridge, we have a bit of quiet road walking, narrow lanes, south, before taking to the first of the boggy meadow paths, this one by Thursland hill fishery, and eventually out onto the causeway at Cockerham marsh.

It’s all wide blue sky and impossibly green meadows here, a pair of swans in one, stark white against the green, a pair of hares at play in another. There’s something neat and, compartmentalised about this, something symbolic, dreamlike even, and then,…our first impediment to progress, our first challenge: a gate, tied up with a tangle of wire and made so as not to be undone.

It makes me question my memory, my confidence, for sure the path leads through here? The map says yes, but there’s no way this gate is going to open, and all alternative routes lead astray. Something symbolic here also, I think. So I climb the gate and, not for the last time today, make good my course.

Gaining the causeway at Cockerham Marsh, I’m in time to see a Pilatus Turbo Porter, belonging to the Black Knights skydiving centre, hauling itself aloft with a penetrating buzz that vibrates in my skull. This is new to me. They have not flown on previous incarnations of this day.

Later, as I walk the causeway a couple of red chutes blossom in the blue. Men float to the ground, legs akimbo, wobbling. Their rate of descent looks faster than I’d be comfortable with. I’m reminded a man was killed here in 2012 when his chute didn’t open. It’s a sobering thought – a popular charity challenge, but leaping from a plane is no joke, and clearly not without its dangers, which I suppose is the attraction.

Anyway,…

It’s a gorgeous morning on the marsh – the tide is out, waders a plenty by the sparkling waterline – a mix of dunlin mostly, some curlew and the occasional splash of darting colour, and the shrill piping of oyster-catchers. These are the birds I can name, many I cannot. I kick against a curious piece of brass just along the way here, hear its metallic jingle underfoot. Curious, I pick it up.

What the Hell?

knuckledusterIt’s a knuckleduster, perfect fit too, but as I squeeze it into my fist, I feel a jarring of something unpleasant, imagine it smashing into someone’s jaw in a drunken brawl, blood, a spill of teeth, torn flesh. What foolishness and folly – the worst of mankind encapsulated in this one dumb object.

They are illegal to carry, and to sell in the UK, but not to own – one avoids prosecution I presume by not being caught with it in one’s possession. I don’t know what to do with it. If I drop it back onto the path, it’s there for the next passer by to chance upon it. And so what? I don’t know, but it doesn’t feel right, feel safe, so I slip it into my pocket for now, some possibly misguided sense of protection. I’ll have to think about it.

plover-scarAcross a vast, green, sea-scented sward I approach the Chapter House of the Abbey now, but what draws my eye is the Plover Scar Light, just off shore, or rather its absence from the receding tide. It was a rusty old thing, quaint, its architecture not quite of this world and having the look of something too long at sea without paint. And it’s mostly gone now, its stonework laid out methodically ashore, its foundations on the scar overlaid with an exoskeleton of scaffolding. A ship struck it some months ago, dealt it a mortal blow, but engineers are undertaking a painstaking restoration. It was always a beautiful subject for the camera – just Google Plover Scar Light for a sample. I shall have to wait for my next incarnation, next year, to get my picture.

slurryNear the old Lighthouse cottage I return
that smooth-worn piece of the abbey to the sea, keep my mysterious pact with the spirits of place. But it’s an ignominious ceremony overseen by a farmer shooting shit into the meadow across a fence, trundling slow with a giant tank of malodorous slurry. I’m upwind, so it doesn’t bother me, but I sit a while anyway, let him get on, not wanting to follow too close.

So,… the knuckleduster. It’s much pitted and spoiled by weather, but serviceable enough  and not beyond restoration – there are some  who have a morbid fascination for such things. I should take it home and saw it up perhaps? Take it out of circulation. But it feels like a contamination in my pocket, a really bad vibe, bad Karma rising from it like the stench of that slurry now. So how about I throw it into the sea? But might the sea not throw it back, come the next storm, for other hands to find?

gateIt’s about six miles round and back to Glasson. But at five miles I come upon my second impediment to progress ,and this one more serious. It’s a gate that lets on to a section of path that is now submerged by flooding. Someone has laid a precarious looking plank across the gap. The water beyond the gate, under that plank is waist deep and very, very cold. It gives me pause, but the alternative is several miles of backtracking.

I accept the challenge -something bloody minded in my attitude to risk this morning – I mean if people can leap from aeroplanes,… So, I stride out over several feet of water, onto the first bar of the semi-submerged gate, climb the gate, descend to balance on the plank on the other side. Then it’s a deep breath and a couple of steps to the dry land, the plank bending under my weight as I go, so the water comes within inches of overtopping my boots. But I make it over with dry feet.

As a marked track, the Lancashire coastal way is not without its spice!

Finally it’s back along the canal with it’s colourful barges, their chimneys now smoking cosily, and to Glasson Basin where the Mazda basks in the sun, awaiting its long run home. There’s no penalty notice stuck to the windscreen. Glasson keeps its pact with me, as I kept my pact with the ghosts of the abbey. And that knuckleduster? Let’s just say I lost it along the way, lost it somewhere safe where no one,  will ever find it again and from where the sea can never toss it back.

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The Weathered trig point on Thorpe Fell Top

The greatest pleasures in life are free. It’s not a particularly profound observation, but we sometimes forget. Life closes over us and we think we have to buy our way to pleasure, to satisfaction, or even just to make ourselves feel a little better. We all know this doesn’t work. What does work, is a simple walk, preferably up a hill. After a walk up a hill, no matter what life is nagging us with, we return relaxed, magnanimous, philosophical. It’s like a reset button, a thing that reliably blows away all the wormy gremlins.

Of late I’ve been seeking my hills in the Yorkshire Dales, an area unique in character and, to my mind, not as spoiled by rampant tourism, as the neighbouring Lake District. Unlike the Lakes, in the Dales we still find towns and villages that are home to a mostly indigenous population, where the trinket shops are few, and the holiday homes and b+b’s do not yet outnumber the genuine residences. Here, I find every visit yields yet another discovery, another unexpected hamlet with village green, duck-pond and homely teashop.

My most recent discovery, on this bright, frosty winter’s morning is Linton. Linton fits into the geography of Wharfedale, being just a stone’s throw from Burnsall, Hebden and Grassington. I’ve been driving up and down the Wharfe for years and not suspected Linton’s existence at all, and was drawn to it eventually simply as the starting point for this walk up Thorpe Fell. I had to check the map, and there it was.

I don’t know the stories of place here as well as I should, but this lends a touch of mystery to the land, and a void into which imagination tumbles with all the enthusiasm of the Romantic poet. I am prone to a certain mysticism in the empty places. There are many parts of the Dales, particularly what I still think of as the old West Riding, that have something of the big-house estate about them, something almost Feudal. This area is dominated by the vast Bolton Abbey Estate, and not well served with rights of way across its siren tops – we woolly hatted ones I imagine being discouraged, pre “Countryside and Rights of Way Act”, but we are now free to explore – just don’t expect many waymarked paths while you’re at it.

Thorpe Fell is one of the most stunning heather moors I’ve seen. This morning the heather is dusted with frost and presents us with rather an eerie, windswept yet curiously beguiling wilderness. I can imagine September here will be ablaze with purple, and promise myself I will return to see it.

From Linton, we make our way by meadow and country lane to Thorpe Village, from where a track begins the ascent of the moor, petering out by degrees until one is all but relying on a sixth sense. There is a feeling of isolation, of loneliness which makes all the more surprising the presence of rather a fine tea-hut on the moor’s windy edge. It isn’t marked on my edition of the Ordnance Survey map. The hut looks cosy, but is locked up tight and shuttered against intruders – I presume being solely for the use of the sons of gentlemen when they come up in their tweeds and knickerbockers to shoot grouse. But there is also rather a fine, open, grass roofed barn nearby, also not marked on the map, and in which I take brief shelter while enjoying lunch.

There is an indistinct summit to Thorpe Fell, complete with weathered trig-point, but it is not served by any path – the only path hereabouts veering off from the tea hut roughly north west, avoiding the summit which lies to the south west. The land, however, is open access, unless the gentlemen are shooting of course, and today they are not, so we are free to make a stab at its general direction. It’s a quarter mile or so of raw moor-bashing, the heather thick and springy with just the occasional weathered outcrop to provide a firmer going.

From the crumbling trig point (506 metres) the views are simply stunning. It’s also possible to see the next objective, the memorial on Cracoe Fell a little to the west of south west. It’s best to head due west from here though, rather than make a bee line, otherwise peat hags and the upper reaches of Yethersgill make for a laborious approach. Instead, due west, we pick up the line of a wall, and beside it a confident path leads us more easily to the memorial.

The memorial, a huge cairn, sitting atop a fine outcrop, adds height and drama to the fell – it bears a plaque marking the years 1914-1919, and the names of the fallen. This is the point at which we begin our descent, first to the village of Cracoe, then back through the meadows to Linton. But there is no direct route to Cracoe from the top, as I discovered in the attempting of it. I was thinking to head north west, a trackless bee-line towards an enticing bit of track that runs up from Cracoe to a weather station, but this leads quickly to bog, and for me rather a cold dip as one foot broke through the crust into something altogether less pleasant below. So, it’s better to back track a little from the memorial, back along the wall we have just come along, to where a gate gives access westwards. Either way we’re aiming for the Fell Lane track, which takes us to Cracoe, and the meadow paths home to Linton.

We’ve been walking for 5 hours now, the light beginning to leak away as we cross the various stiles and lush, frost dusted meadows. My feet always seem to know when I’m on the last mile, whether the walk is a couple of miles or ten, and they start to complain. But it’s a pleasant complaint, anticipating the eventual loosening of laces, and the body’s repose after a day in the field. Darkness is coming on, the temperature plummeting as we return to the car, and my boots begin to steam when I pull them off.

I’m always different after a walk. I’d left home that morning labouring under a cloud, my vehicle potentially stuffed at four years old with a major transmission problem . I’d been duped by the dealer I bought it from, was feeling fobbed off and badly served, facing now the prospect of a search for another vehicle and all the hazards that entails (dodgy dealers included – even the big glossy ones), or a very expensive repair. Ah,… cars eh?

Either way were looking at a serious hit in the wallet at a time of year when one can ill afford it. To be sure, it had felt like the end of the world as I’d dragged my bones from bed that morning, and mustered my walking gear, so much so I nearly didn’t bother setting off. But as I poured out my coffee in the Cracoe Cafe that evening, I could not have cared less.

It was a fine sunset, a clear azure sky, another keen, frosty evening coming on. The moon was up, Venus in attendance, with a distinctly coquettish gleam in her eye.

What more could a man want?

Well, let me see,… ah yes!

I ordered a toasted teacake.

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binocularsHave you noticed how we label things in an attempt to understand them? It’s not too bad with the simpler nouns -like “stone” perhaps: Stone, small, round, and maybe if we’re more knowledgeable about stones we can add other label to include categories like: basalt or granite. And thus, gradually, we come to understand the stone. But when it comes to people our understanding is often simplistic to the point of uselessness, because the labels are too small for the essay we each deserve, yet this doesn’t prevent others from attaching those simplistic monosyllabic labels to us.

My schooldays were made difficult by disruptive children in class. They sparked chaos, turning the teacher’s faces beetroot red with rage – a rage that was turned on all of us, both innocent and guilty. I don’t know what makes kids behave like that, other than stupidity. Nowadays I guess they’d be labelled as suffering from something like ADHD. Diagnosis is made via a tickbox of responses, and thereby we create the illusion of an understanding, of a “category” of person. The kids are still disruptive, still cause nightmares for the sensitives ones – who could possibly also be labelled with any number of acronymic anxiety disorders. Drugs can be prescribed for categories of suffering – downers to stupefy the violent , uppers to make the passive ones less shy. But is this really what we want?  And why am I harping on about my schooldays when what I want to talk about is binoculars?

Yes, binoculars!

When I go for a walk in the wilds I carry a pair of lightweight binoculars. Other walkers will often stop and ask me if I’ve seen any interesting birds. This happened twice today, during just a few hours’ walk up Great Hill in the Western Pennines.

I had seen no interesting birds – just a couple of crows, and no offence to crows but they are rather too common to be labelled as interesting. Birds are a feature of any walk of course and I do like to tell them apart, but I’m not a bird watcher. I carry binoculars for another reason, which is:

From the summit of Great Hill, I saw the Lake District fifty miles away, ditto The Yorkshire Dales. I spotted a new cairn raised on Darwen Moor, or possibly an old cairn grown much bigger – a thing that warrants further exploration. Conversely I saw the cairn on Round Loaf was tumbled flat, prompting a note in my diary to go and build it up again. I saw the giant Wind Turbines on Scout Moor with their arms arrested in the late afternoon sunlight, their leading edges seared with fire. I saw the coastline, from Liverpool to Preston taking on an amber glow. I saw the curious brown pall of an atmospheric inversion, running the length of the Ribble Valley, and wondered, in an era of de-industrialisation where the smog could be coming from- just traffic, I suppose?

Yes, binoculars add another dimension to the appreciation of any high altitude walk – even Great Hill’s modest 1200 feet . I get to enjoy both the near and the far distance in equal clarity. But how to explain all of that to the particularly inquisitive, woolly hatted gentleman I met today:

“Is that what you do then? Birds?”

No, that’s not quite what I do. What do I do then? Why the damned binoculars, as if it’s anybody else’s business? If I must wear a simple label for the day, then let it be “walker”. But just because we have a diagnosis, and therefore a cure for the curiosity of passers by, it does not mean we grant them any more of an understanding about what’s really going on, about what or who we really are. I might also have said, writer, since I was also unconsciously gathering material for this piece. Romantic is also a good label for me since I always at least partially envision the land through my imagination. But this complicates things, deepens them too much for passing conversation.

Returning from Great Hill I was accosted by a noisy bunch of lads who looked like they might have been the disruptive type at school. They each held by the leash a killer dog.

“Seen any interesting birds mate?” asked one.

His associates tittered approvingly.

“Not many interesting birds up here, lads,” I replied.

Jocular titters all round – the feathered variety is not what they meant, but I was too slow to realise. Either way my reply sufficed.

Perhaps I should leave the binoculars at home next time, or hide them in my bag and spare the tiresome ritual of repeated explanation? Or just pretend to be a twitcher.

No, we are what we are, and that needs no explaining, or excuses. To anyone.

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Suliven, Sutherland, UK

I still think of Suliven. It’s a mountain to be seen with one’s own eyes before it can be adequately believed in. I saw it thirty years ago, had the passion for it then, but no realistic opportunity of getting my boots on it. My companions possessed no mountain form, and were only kind enough to humour my obsession sufficient to allow me time to get within visual range.

We had driven from Ullapool after a sojourn on the edge of the midnight sun, then north, to Sutherland and the little harbour town of Lochinver. There, I walked inland, along a narrow scrap of road and I gazed at Suliven, confirming to my satisfaction the reality of its remarkable existence. Then I had to dive out of the way as a pick-up truck came at me, clipped me with its cab mirror. The mirror broke, but I was unhurt, spared injury by my aluminium water bottle which took the hit for me, bearing ever afterwards an impressive dent.

The truck didn’t stop.

I’m certain, in the long ago, Romantics were not a target for extermination. There were no guardian trolls tearing up Wordsworth’s first in-situ drafts of Daffodils by Ullswater’s choppy shores, nor hunting him down atop Helvellyn with their fowling pieces while he sought only to settle for inspiration. Perhaps he had better protection, contracted out among the fates by his formidable muse. Anyway, thus it was, and with a certain ignominy, I left Lochinver without so much as breaking bread. I returned south then, to several decades of the whirlwind of life and did not return.

I do not lament our estrangement.

Suliven exists for me still as part of a tangible reality, a phenomenon to which I have borne witness, yet also as something on the edge of perception, therefore inhabiting a liminal zone, one to which I am forbidden entry as a mortal. And all things are relative: for the inhabitants of Lochinver, to say nothing of mad bastards in pick-up trucks, Suliven is as ubiquitous as the wind and the mist, and the rain and the bog, to say nothing of the sheep ticks that infest those wastes, and whose parasitic presence is difficult to interpret metaphorically in any way other than negative.

The far-away then is no guarantor of wise teaching and, since the landscape of myth is always viewed in part, through the eye of imagination, my own hills have had as much to say over the years as I imagined Suliven might back then. It’s all a question of interpretation.

To experience myth is to walk the path in company with, and under the protection of the faery, or the Gods, however you like to phrase it. One visits the territory, the village, the town, the safe valley of human habitation, a place that is never-the-less inspired by the transcendent vista of the hill beyond the last farm gate. The hill is Olympus rising assertively above the mundane. One fetches up in the vale, contemplates the hill from afar, measures ones mortality in the presentation of light and shadow on its flank. Then we climb and experience the path as it unfolds, interpret the course and the discourse of the hill before returning, footsore, then to be restored at the well-spring of human hospitality,…

To tea and crumpets.

But I’m talking of another hill, now, way, way south of the Norseman’s Sutherland. I’m talking of Ingleborough, in fact, in the Yorkshire Dales, and of the homely little village of Clapham where those crumpets were so aromatic after a day on the hill, they were surely delivered from the ovens of a divine refectory. I exaggerate of course, as is my wont, fashioning a moody purple from the clear blue of a benign autumn sky, and the scent of a crumpet – oh, but they were sweet and aromatic! Also, so far as I’m aware, there is no Faery-lore in the Dales, but as a mixed descendent of the Irish Celt, and of the British Setantii (according to Ptolemy),… I find the shee tend to travel with me.

Ingleborough has been a good friend over the years, and like all good friends it’s never afraid to give me a good talking to. Not long ago, amid a ferociously inclement turn of weather, it tested every step of my wobbly ascent, then tipped me over a good mile from the top and said: you’re losing it, mate. You’re no longer that twenty five year old who beheld Suliven and dared to dream of climbing it. I’d let my fitness slip below the level of aspiration. All hills worth their salt are the same in this regard, demanding of the pilgrim a certain circumspection for their ardours.

So I’ve been working on it.

The older you get, the greater prize the hills will promise you, but the harder you have to work at it. Today I climbed Ingleborough again. It was a clear day, a warm day – no horizontal rain this time – and the hill was glad to receive me without much persuasion. And there, by the summit mound, I settled to make libation to the gods with Vimto and Kitkat, while a large family – grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren, settled beside me in pointy party hats to celebrate a birthday, with cake! Well, this is Yorkshire after all, and anything can happen, though it must be said, in my experience, unexpected happenings in Yorkshire tend to be positive ones.

I do still think of Suliven, but to be honest, you can keep it. I’m certainly in no hurry to return. I’ve plenty of hills to call my own. Ingleborough’s just one of them, and not a single troll in a pick-up truck to hit and run me down.

Or maybe these days I just have better protection.

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Pendle Hill Summit

Lancashire, driving roughly north and east along the A59, in the vicinity of Whalley. It’s a fast road, whisking you towards Clitheroe, then beyond to Gisburn and the Dales. Just here though, to the right, there comes into view a big hill, dun coloured, or sometimes more darkly dappled according to season and cloud. Or sometimes, in the wet, the clouds will take it, and you won’t even know it’s there. But on the clear days, like today, depending on how the light falls, the hill will sing a siren song, and if you’re susceptible it will infect you with a strange longing, calling you to a closer intimacy. This is Pendle.

I was heading for the Dales, but the shifting light on Pendle’s warm western flank seduced me, brought me off the A59 at Chatburn. Then it was the perfect little road, through Downham, and on to Barley. Imagination and myth lends this area an atmosphere of mystery; this is the heart of Lancashire, one in which abides dark tales of ancient witchcraft.

There are also accounts of holy visions. George Fox, founding father of the Quaker movement, had one. Others have told of doors that open onto other places, and of unspeakable ghostly encounters befalling travellers alone on the hill by night. And there’s a mess of lies too, like those that fetched up ten souls in 1612, had them hanged at Lancaster for murder, supposedly by witchcraft. As late as 2009, a petition was presented to parliament to have the condemned posthumously pardoned – the Witchcraft Act itself having been repealed in 1957. But the petition was refused, and the convictions stand. In Pendle it’s still official: death by witchcraft. And so the myths perpetuate.

But there are lighter stories too, a sense of humour in the tales of Sabden’s treacle mines, and the Boggarts who eat the treacle, and then there are the Parkin Weavers,… and maybe the Black Pudding Twisters too, or maybe I’m mixing up my stories now with a greater Lancastrian lore.

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Barley

It’s a big hill at 557 meters, and somewhat bleaker in appearance here on the steeper eastern face, at the bottom of which the little grit-stone village of Barley nestles in a broad green vale. Barley welcomes. It’s just a pound to park your car all day, and a welcoming tea-room close to hand. Most visitors come for the hill – either to look at it, or to climb it.

There are many ways up Pendle. I’ve done them from all points of the compass, in all weathers and seasons. The most direct and least interesting is the shortest, by the eastern face, from Barley, just a couple of kilometers up the stone-set tracks that slant diagonally across the face to left and right. But a more interesting, and less direct way leads you away from the hill for a while,  by the reservoirs of Ogden Clough.

I last did this route with a friend, some twenty years ago, when I recall the hill being alive with little frogs, black and shiny, a vast hoard of miniature obsidian reptilia, all crossing the moor, leaping over the toes of our boots, sweeping purposefully east, as if answering the call of a biblical plague. But the route that day, being shared with another happy soul, did not seem so lonely then as it did now. Today there were no little frogs, only the sound of the wind, and the feel of the curious eyes of the Faery on my back.

Don’t believe in the Faery? Well why would you? It’s a ridiculous notion. They are simply my own daemons, and not an unkindly breed – it depends which windows of imagination you go poking your head through.

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Ogden Clough

There are two reservoirs in Ogden Clough, the lower and the higher, both narrow slits of water, reflecting alternately the lead grey, the shock white, and the deep blue of a changeable September sky. Beyond the higher reservoir, the track bends to reveal the far reaches of the Clough, and no more desolate a place will you find anywhere in England. For a moment here the silence took my breath. It was what the hill had wanted to say, I think, or rather to show, to remind me of this silence, this emptiness, this palpable stillness. Of course the feeling, like the feel of the Faery, was as much to do with an inner frame of mind as by the mere lay and remoteness of the land, but it was a connection I had been lacking of late, and I was glad for a fresh glimpse of it. Hills are always different when you walk them alone; they have so much more to show you.

A stone bearing the chiseled image of a falcon marks the parting of the track, and the route to Pendle. It goes up the Pendle Way, along the narrow nick of Boar Clough, then a couple of kilometers, moderately steep, across an open, windy, heather-hissing moor, to the summit trig-point, and the company of other pilgrims. Until now I had not seen another soul since leaving Barley.

The obvious reward for your efforts is the view of course, opening suddenly from the ridge to the north and east – lush farmland, little hamlets and the shining eyes of ponds and reservoirs. The character of a hill is first felt in the look of it from below, then in the pleasure of its routes, and in the change of perspective it offers the climber on his lowland life. For a moment, from the top of a fine hill like this, we cannot help but transcend the ordinary. In all of these respects, Pendle pleases, but also it reminds us that for all of our modernity, the land can still be a daemon haunted place, one still bound up in myth-making, a place where the imaginary can still be felt as a physical presence.

Not all hills can do this.

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