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coirelagan

Corrie Lagan – Isle of Skye

In the summer of ’86, I took a long drive to the Isle of Skye. I was 25 and my life had not turned out as I’d expected. I’d followed a clearly mapped course from the age of 16: a long technical education, and indentureship to a profession that paid reasonably well. On the surface of things then, give or take a near nervous breakdown or two, I’d nothing to complain about: my car was just a few years old, and paid for, and I had saved enough money for a deposit on a house. It looked as if I was on my way, but something vital was missing and it haunted me.

My life’s course had led me to the edge of the map, and when I turned it over I found the page blank. The map seemed to be saying, this is it, what more do you expect? But the world at 25 was featureless and boring, and the future looked equally uninspiring, empty of mental stimulation, and everything I’d learned seemed of no use to me any more.

It didn’t help I was between girlfriends, pining for the one I’d lost, and not yet daring to anticipate the next. She was supposed to be with me on that trip, but we’d broken up just before, so I was in a state of mind that guaranteed the world would appear superficial, oblivious to my existence and entirely meaningless. But, for anyone craving hedonistic distraction from a serious romantic breakup, the emptiness of the Western Highlands and Islands isn’t the best choice of trip, better by far if it’s a kind of oblivion and rebirth we’re seeking, which I suppose I was. Indeed, as the ever more stunning landscape of the Western Highlands swallowed me up, I felt my loneliness deepen all the more. But there was a kind of adventure in it, too and a freedom of movement and a spontaneity I might not otherwise have enjoyed. I had not arranged a string of accommodation for my tour, but trusted entirely to fate, navigating from one hotel to the next, looking them up each morning after breakfast in my quaint yellow Automobile Association handbook, and ringing from little red call boxes in the most exquisitely picturesque locations. The first hotel to have vacancies would determine my course for the day. Thus it was, by a somewhat circuitous route, and after several days’ motoring I wound up in Mallaig. From there an old Calmac ferry brought me across the water to the Isle of Skye.

Skye is always a revelation, no matter how many times you see it, and though I have not seen it for a long time now, it remains fresh in memory, and for good reasons. Skye cradled my loneliness, not exactly comforting me, but inviting me instead to analyse what it was I felt. Its mountains had something of fairyland about them, something remote and beguiling, yes, but they were also brutal and I knew I was not up to exploring much beyond the foothills. This is where generations of British have trained for high adventure, and is not a place for the faint of heart. Even the rock of which Skye’s mountains are made will  flay the skin from your fingers, and tear your boots to rags.

All journeys have a trajectory to them and we can feel the turning point, the moment the outward leg finds its conclusion and turns for home. Mine came on the climb from Glenbrittle to the mountain tarn of Corrie Lagan. It’s a walk that brings you to the heart of the Cuillin, and from there a choice of more daring adventures. But instead of pressing on up the great stone chute to Sgurr Alisdair, I sat by the corrie in the sun, arrested by the view, and the air, and an indefinable strangeness.

There were men on the opposite bank, soldiers, though not wearing any semblance of uniform. They had just completed a traverse of the Cuillin ridge – a monumental feat of courage, steadiness and skill – and were cooling off. One of them plunged into the clear waters and swam across to me. We chatted amiably for a while, which was kind of him as we were clearly different species; I was a skinny, milk-white office-drone, far from home, and he a bronzed, muscled warrior for whom the whole world was home, and though we looked of a similar age he had already done and seen more than I ever would if I lived to be a hundred.

I realised too the island, and Corrie Lagan in particular had begun transforming my loneliness into a deeper longing, but not for company, at least not of the mortal kind. Nor was it the stimulation of material things I craved, nor the excitement of high adventure, nor even the arcane machinations of career progression. There was, it seemed at once, a deeper and more subtle dimension to the world. I first glimpsed it reflected in the clear scrying waters of Corrie  Lagan that day, and I heard it in the voices, half imagined, echoing from the Cuillin’s savage rim.

True, I would never be a warrior, they said, likely never cross the Cuillin ridge blithely, with my hands on top of my head and I would probably never be a millionaire. My chosen profession already bored the pants off me and I had no girlfriend. But so what? Such vexations might seem important at the time, but in the great scheme of things they are at the very least subordinate to this awakening to a sublime sense of the inner world, a thing not unlike falling in love, a phenomenon whose existence the genus loci of Corrie Lagan acquainted me with, then sent me home with a mind to exploring it for the rest of my days.

You don’t need to climb to Corrie Lagan to find it, though its openings in places like that are more obvious than elsewhere and easier for the neophyte to discern. But awareness of its presence cuts in two directions. Yes, it grants a higher perspective on life’s experience, and it renders much of what we do, and the things that vex us, banal, when compared with the potential we all have for a much deeper connection with the inspirational power of our natural surroundings. But when we see the despoliation of the earth, and the detritus of our messy civilisations spilling endlessly into the sea, we feel also those vital portals closing, shrinking back from our crass presence. We realise then with a sense of panic and grief, the few who have awakened fully to that greater reality, and might guide us more surely towards it, may well be the last of us. And what use is that?

It’s thirty five years now since that trip to the Isle of Skye, and after all this time I would not want this latter point to be the sole lesson of a life’s journey, a kind of too-late warning to mind how you go when the avalanche is all but on top of us. The next few decades will tell whether the map of our collective future leads to better things, or to extinction, but there is no mistaking the fact that right now the world stands on the cusp of great change, materially, socially, politically and ecologically. It could go either way but while pessimism is always tempting, especially given the things I have seen, in spite of myself, I am holding on for something infinitely more hopeful.

 

 

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bomber memorial

The Bomber Memorial, Anglezarke, August 2019

The dog days are upon us, bringing with them a stultifying heat, humidity, and thunderstorms. The Western Pennines have escaped the worst of it, unlike Derbyshire, Cheshire and North Yorkshire, all of which have suffered an apocalyptic pounding this week. We’ve had one flood warning, fortunately short lived as the storms broke elsewhere. Anglezarke meanwhile was steamy, the reservoirs as yet not full, but filling fast, the becks running high and the air enlivened by the sound of water as a week’s rains poured from the moors.

I had in mind a brief walk to check out a possible megalith, over in the meadows towards Jepson’s farm, but was defeated by cowardice, or the better part of valour, whichever you prefer. From the Yarrow reservoir there’s a network of footpaths taking you north through lush pastures which rise steeply to the edge of the moor. It’s just a short hop from the car and far enough in such a fierce heat. As I set out I saw a peregrine which gave me pause. When birds of prey are aloft the song birds go into stealth mode, and the atmosphere of a place changes. I’m also superstitious about birds and this one had the look of an omen about it.

Then there were sheep. Suddenly. Thousands of sheep, running, panicking, wave upon wave of them undulating across the green and all heading towards me. Sheep moving like that are generally being driven by something – a dog, or a farmer’s quad-bike – but all I could hear was the beating of hooves on a heavy earth. It was puzzling. Then came another sound, deeper, and distinctly bovine. The thing driving them was a crazed bullock.

The countryphile has no fear of sheep – I know some townies do, but trust me, they’re harmless creatures, even in large numbers, though easily spooked. I’ve read they’re more intelligent than a dog and I had it in my head they’d clocked me as a human being, therefore a useful idiot, and were making a beeline, expecting me to sort this stupid and possibly heat-addled bullock out, give it a stern ticking off for tormenting them. I’m afraid they overestimated my pluck.

The rules regarding potentially aggressive farm animals and public footpaths are strict, but not all farmers obey them, and it’s for the walker to make their own judgement when encountering these large ruminants, which can also come in armed varieties with pointy things on their heads. Cows are generally okay, require caution if they’re with calves but might attack on instinct if you’ve a dog with you, so always let the dog go. Cows are easily identifiable of course: they have udders. Bulls are a different matter, and opinions vary. Some are aggressive, some aren’t. A bull for beef isn’t, I’m told, while a bull for dairy is, but neither kind have udders and I wouldn’t know the difference, nor in what context each might be encountered because they do not come with labels attached.

A bull in a field of cows generally has other things to think about than chasing walkers. A field of bullocks is also considered safe and, though they can sometimes be curious, can easily be discouraged by a wave and a shout. However, while we’re invited to take it on trust the farmer wouldn’t deliberately endanger life, there’s no point lying on a morgue slab crushed under a ton of beef claiming you had lawful right of passage across his meadow.

Now perhaps a charging bullock isn’t as dangerous as it looks, but I decided discretion was the better part of valour and backtracked hastily, left the sheep to their torment, and scrambled to safety over the gate. Peculiar thing – I’ve never seen sheep and cattle grazing together before. Still, it seems sheep do at least keep the bullocks entertained, and vice versa.

So, I abandoned my search for the megalith and am still a bit ticked off about it. Instead I walked a little way up Lead Mine’s Clough, climbed the valley-side to the bomber memorial, then sat down. This is a fine, tranquil viewpoint – no sheep and no bullocks.

The memorial remembers the loss of a Wellington bomber – Zulu 8799 – on Hurst Hill, in the November of 1943. Out on a navigational exercise from its base in Leicestershire, it  struck the moor in the small hours of the morning with an impact that was felt for miles around. It had a crew of six, and all were lost. The pilot, Timperon, just 24, came from Alice Springs in Australia, came half way round the world to die on Anglezarke moor, about as far from hearth and home as it’s possible to imagine.

It’s a sobering thought, imagining those war years and the young being called up, and sent to places they’ve most likely never heard of. From reading war diaries of fighting men, you get a feeling for the mixture of fear and the sense of wanting to do one’s duty, but I have to close my thoughts off from imagining what it was like for those six lads in those last moments before the crash. There are no physical traces on the moor now, though the debris field was still there well into the sixties when I went up with my dad and had a pick through the various bits of twisted metal.

More often true valour does not have the luxury of discretion; it just has to button down, and get on with it.

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corncrakeThe searing heat abated somewhat today, though the stupefying humidity remained. I decided on just a short outing then, not too far nor too strenuous but still found myself dripping in minutes.

Where was I? Well, see if you can guess: the forest floor was ferny thick and the canopy abuzz with a torment of flies. There were plastic bottles a plenty in the undergrowth, ditto crisp packets, also a wealth of spent nitrous oxide cartridges. Higher up the hill, among the painstakingly restored terraced walkways there were the usual bags of dog turds hanging from trees like bizarre offerings to the ever salivating demons of barbarism, oh,… and there was an adult diaper oozing mess. We could only be in the Rivington Terraced Gardens then, or just about anywhere else in the countryside these days.

But on a lighter note I had recently discovered this thing called Google Lens. If you have a data signal, you can point your Android device’s camera at anything, and it will tell you what it is. So, whilst out and about in the green and with quite a perky signal, I decided to try it out – in the field so to speak. However, it swore blind the oak leaf was from a different tree entirely, a more exotic and entirely unpronounceable Amazonian species. It struggled to find any sort of name for a sycamore leaf at all, was confused by a humble bramble, but did identify, in the corner of that particular frame a corncrake, which would have been sensational had it not actually been my foot.

All of which got me thinking, if Google really is intent on displacing superfluous human activities like driving cars and reading maps, and telling us what things are, there must come a point when we’re no longer capable of knowing about these things for ourselves. It is at that point our entire frame of reference will be dictated by a kind of iron-brained deity we have in fact constructed, placed our trust in, and quite probably sacrificed our own long term survival on planet earth so this unconscious entity can thrive while missing the point entirely, that without us humble thinking beings, this artificial creature has no purpose at all.

It might well be an oak tree we are looking at, but we shall be forced to call it whatever the machine says it is, whether it is or not. And if the machine has no name for a thing, we shall stare at that nameless thing in horror, as we might at a demon come to threaten our entire world view.

For a time there’ll still be grey-haired die-hards who like to read books and maps, Luddites who insist on driving their own cars, but we won’t last much longer and then, well, you kids are on your own, and you’ve only yourselves to blame. The real world is still out there, though looking a little sorry for itself now, quite literally shat upon, and suffering ever more frequent paroxisms of climatic excess that we’re probably too late to fix. And I suppose the thing is we’ve never respected it, trusted instead in our own superiority, in our technologies, so now we find ourselves with gormless expressions, tongues hanging out, noses pressed against the glass of our latest device, peering in to a world that doesn’t exist, while the one that does, the one that sustains us and gives us air to breathe, we have allowed to catch fire.

We are adept at adaptation, so much so there can never be an example of dystopia outside of science fiction, for no matter how weird or absurd, oppressive or dangerous our world becomes, we have already accepted it as the new normal, even before it’s claimed its first victims.

Corncrake? Yea right.

 

 

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italian lake

Leverhulme’s Italian Lake

If you wander up the side of Rivington moor, towards the Pike, you’ll come across what looks like the remains of a lost citadel. Is this the ruin of some ancient Lancastrian civilisation? No. It’s the remains of a summer palace, created by Thomas Mawson in the early part of the last century for the pleasure of the industrialist, William Hesketh Lever (Lord Leverhulme). Known as the Terraced Gardens, photographs from the period suggest a stunning arrangement of architectural and botanical wonders, crowned by Leverhulme’s residence, “The Bungalow” which played host to glittering parties for the region’s well-to-do. Leverhulme died in 1925 and – sobering thought this – almost at once, the place fell into ruin.

There have been various attempts since to stabilise the remains and preserve them as some sort of amenity, the most recent being a Heritage Lottery funded project which is making perhaps the biggest effort I can remember, and which I believe has been largely successful, rolling back nature a little and revealing much more of the structures we had thought lost for ever. Not entirely ruinous, there are various summerhouses, the Italian and the Japanese lake (with waterfalls), the stupendous seven arched bridge, and the iconic Pigeon tower, to say nothing of winding terraced pavements, are all intact and accessible for free, to be explored at will.

terraced garden steps

As we wander among these romantic ruins today, it’s hard not to slip into contemplative mode, thus you discover me sitting a while by the newly renovated “Italian Lake” thinking, among other things, about that scourge of modern times (forgive me): BREXIT! The other things, we’ll get to in a moment, but for now whether you’re a Remainer or a Brexiteer, the one thing we can agree on is the disruptive influence it has had on the nation’s psyche these past few years. Internet, TV, radio – the first thing you hear is BREXIT. And everyone is angry about it and with each other, about it.

For myself I’m viewing it all somewhat darkly, though with a grim resignation now, watching as politicians manoeuvre themselves, and seemingly in such a way as to guarantee the coming hammer-blow inflicts the most damage on those who can defend against it the least. If a foreign power had set out to undermine, and collapse the United Kingdom, politically, socially and economically, they could have done no better job than we seem to be doing ourselves. But is it reasonable I should feel this way? I mean is it rational? Not that I am mistaken, but more that I should care at all?

World events are what they are, and while they do seem parlous at the moment, and on many fronts, there is nothing I can do about any of them, and this has always been so for the individual down the generations, and for all time. The world is like Leverhulme’s garden, for ever in need of repair. Take your eye off it for a minute and the stones are coming out, the tiles are slipping, the water is getting in and spoiling the carpet. In short there is no Arcadia, only at best a continual effort to maintain the good, and the progressive, in the direction of least harm.

twin arches

But then there are times when I wonder if it isn’t the other way around, that I am creating the mess myself in my head, and faithfully manifesting what I feel through the decay of the world. So is the solution to the macrocosm’s disintegration, not also to be found in working towards the restoration of the microcosm of my own self? It’s a silly way of thinking perhaps, but such are the run of my thoughts this afternoon, and if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to follow them wherever they take me.

I’ve been reading competing theories of human development – one of them essentially spiritual and inactive, letting be what will be, and the other active, secular and psychological, addressing the flaws of the self which, in me, seem no less abundant than they were decades ago, the same neuroses flaring up at the slightest provocation, the same doubts, the same ignorance.

It’s Ken Wilbur who talks about vectors, though he may not call them that. When a solution to our ills seems to rush off with a certain energy and in a particular direction, and then another solution, seeming just as convincing, rushes off in another direction, it’s likely neither solution is correct but it’s reasonable to assume the greatest gain might be found somewhere in-between the two, so we sum the vectors and see where they lead us. But what if the vectors are diametrically opposed and of equal energy? Then they cancel out and leave us right back where we started, only with one hell of an internal tension – or there would be if, this afternoon, I wasn’t simply watching raindrops fall on the Italian Lake.

He would swim in this lake – Leverhulme I mean. I see him now, coming down the steps from the bungalow, maybe even a cool, wet day like this. A butler follows him at a respectful distance with towel and umbrella. He lowers himself into the water, (Leverhulme, not the butler) and pushes off. The water is peaty and scummy this afternoon, and full of tadpoles, so I’m thinking he must have had a serf in waders skim it regularly. And now, a century later, here I am, thinking about him, wondering what it is he means to me, and most likely it’s nothing other than a convenient lever against the fulcrum of thought, trying to move something otherwise immovable into the realms of a murky understanding.

A week ago, I was up by Angle Tarn in the far eastern fells, remote from the world, my thoughts moving much more freely than now. Now I’m back in the thick of it, and wondering about the pointlessness of so much of the suffering we see, day to day. It’s the default position, I suppose, when we stop believing in God, empirical reason alone just circles the plughole of its own bath-water, leaving us with nothing by way of a sense of meaning, only this gnawing feeling we’ve missed a trick somewhere.

terraced garden trail

True, it has to be said the evidence isn’t overwhelmingly in favour of a benign, interventionist deity either. But I’ve noticed life does go better when we err on the side of caution, and allow room for some form of mystical thinking, if only because it enables us to transcend the noise of our Twitter feed, pull our snouts from the trough for a moment and glimpse the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture is that for long periods of our history we have lived with the expectation that every day will be just like the last, generally peaceful and prosperous, and that such a happy state might last for ever and be passed on to our children. But every now and then events arise that deny us the comfort of familiar times. And while it’s at such times there is the greatest potential for personal and national tragedy, there is also the greatest opportunity for self knowledge and understanding.

It’s hard to say what it is that’s coming exactly, and what kind of harm it will inflict, but whatever it is we’d each be wise to look more closely at the mending of ourselves, for it’s only through such self-healing we discover we are better able to understand and take care of one another. From what I see at present though, and in increasingly vivid colours since the cloud of BREXIT burst over our heads and washed all manner of demons from the sewers, looking after one another seems the least of our priorities. Instead we withdraw to the boundaries, or rather to the fissures, of our respective clan identities, project evil onto the rest and then, for want of a simple bit of maintenance, the whole damned lot comes crashing down.

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hartsop barn

When he was writing his iconic guidebook series, Alfred Wainwright gave the region east of Ullswater, Patterdale and Kirkstone, the rather exotic title: the Far Eastern Fells. It has something of the romance of old Empire about it, suggesting a region both aloof and mysterious. For two years he explored it in his characteristically painstaking and solitary manner, finally penning the last full stop of this, his second volume, in the Autumn of 1956. On its completion, he said, he felt like a man who had just come home “from a long and lonely journey”, describing a land in which he had walked from morning till dusk without sight of other human beings. It’s not quite so lonely a place now, but still a good choice for anyone wanting to escape the queues on Striding Edge.

“They are for strong walkers,” these fells, he says, “and should please the solitary man of keen observation and imagination”.

far eastern fellsIn the 50’s this region was very difficult to get at, especially for anyone, like Wainwright, without a car, and that means most people. Overnight accommodation was sparse, still is, being mostly restricted to the Patterdale valley. He relied on bus services from Kendal, and wild-camps overnight. But over-nighting on the fells for Wainwright did not involve a tent, just a blanket and endless smokes until first-light. He walked in tweeds and hobnails, and his waterproof was a button-up plastic Mackintosh. Today’s mountain rescue teams would feel obliged to consider him mad and deliver a stern lecture, but his was a more rugged, unassuming, and self-reliant generation, one that brushed off hardship. It was thus, lightly attired, he explored every nook and cranny, and of an evening he would settle down at home with pen and ink and fashion for us entirely by hand these neatly intricate and fastidiously detailed guidebooks which, like no others, are a timeless love-song to the land of the lakes. They are also of course a lasting inspiration to the generations who have followed him up the English mountains.

As he wrote his guides he worried they would soon become dated beyond use, but many an experienced fell-walker still defers to them when planning an expedition. They provide a wealth of detail, all of it conveyed with great charm. For once though, I found Wainwright of little help. I was planning a walk over Satura Crag by way of Hayeswater, then on to Angle Tarn, but the crag only manages a footnote in book two, it being really neither here nor there, just a neat little crown of crags on the way from one much bigger place to the next. It’s more notable for the view than for the climb – as we shall see – but let’s pocket our Wainwright for company anyway, and off we go.

We begin in Patterdale, at the beautiful little hamlet of Hartsop. And it’s here, I read with some sadness the notice beseeching visitors to take their bags of dog-poo home. It seems the plague of bagged-and-scattered dog-poo has reached even Hartsop now! I have imagined the spread of a crass urban greyness in many ways over the years, contaminating the sublime green with something unwholesome, but discarded bags of poo were not anticipated, nor even imagined, yet they do sum up this socially degenerate phenomenon very well, both in its physical manifestation, but also metaphorically, and even spiritually.

The climb begins at once on an unrelentingly steep track by Hayewater Gill, which, after an hour or so, leads us to the somewhat troubling revelation that is Hayeswater, a post-glacial lake, nestling in a valley at nearly 1400 feet. Why troubling? Well, it’s hard to say, but I’m not the only one to have thought so:

ENFOLDED in the mountain’s naked arms,
Where noonday wears a drearier look than night,
And echo, like a shrinking anchorite,
Wanders unseen, and shadowy strange alarms

Visit the soul ; there sunshine rarely warms
The crags, but only random shafts of light
Flit, while the black squalls shrilling from the height
Shudder along the lake in scattering swarms.

Cradle of tempests, whence the whirlwind leaps
To scourge the billows, till they writhe and rear
Columns of hissing spray ; the wrinkled steeps

Scowl at the sullen moaning of the mere ;
And luminous against the dale-side drear,
Ghostlike, the rainstorm’s scanty vesture sweeps.

hayeswater

Hayeswater from Satura Crag

So wrote Alfred Hayes of it in 1895. And the watercolourist, Heaton Cooper, writing in 1960, agrees it can be rather a sombre place. Heaton Cooper also writes of an abundance of wildlife here but that seems nowadays lacking: deer and pine-martens and birds, including cormorants, fishing for the lake’s salmon. Indeed it has an altogether more barren look about it this morning – not even sheep. There are sketchy paths that trace its shore, but it’s not a place that invites closer acquaintance and I have never been tempted by it. So we avoid the “sullen moaning of the mere” and keep to the sunnier path that winds its way up by The Knott. Here at around 2000 feet, we encounter the path connecting with the Roman Way on Highstreet, and head north. Far below us now, Hayeswater still broods, while the southern sky thickens and dissolves the warm, cloudy-brightness of the morning into something altogether more gloomy. The Met office forecast rain for 15:00, and it looks like they’re going to be right.

I realise that, like most of my walks in the Lakes, I last did this route many years ago. I also remember it as being rather easier than it feels today. As we age, we trade our fitness for “experience”. Yet it’s experience that enables us to savour places such as these all the more and it’s unfortunate then it’s this lost fitness that’s required to carry us up here, thereby curtailing our opportunity for over-indulgence in the Lake country’s mystical delights. But such convolutions aren’t getting us any further along our path, are they Michael? On we go then, the hard work of ascent behind us now, so we can enjoy an undulating and entirely unambiguous path all the way to Satura Crag. From here, northwards we get a view of one of Lakeland’s most secret valleys: the seldom seen and ever so lonely Bannerdale.

It’s a mostly deserted place, just the one lone farm at Dale Head, a white sentinel against the green, and around the corner, at the opening of Rampsgill, there’s the historic hunting lodge, built in 1912 for a visit by our game-mad cousin, Kaiser Willy. The lodge is for hire. It boasts “interesting plumbing” and costs £1400 per week at peak. As a base for exploring this remote region, I can think of nowhere finer! However, I do admit to preferring my plumbing as boring as possible.

angletarn

Angle Tarn

Continuing our way, we come down to Angle Tarn for lunch, an altogether cheerier prospect than Hayeswater. Indeed Wainwright declared this to be one of the finest tarns in Lakeland. Even in gloomy weather, it never fails to make me smile. There is something truly heavenly about it, un-shadowed by soaring crag, it reflects the mood of the sky perfectly, speaking of which, as we settle by the shore, the sky darkens, and a wind stirs the surface to an animated silver.

I was probably twenty five when I first came this way, living at home with my mum, and just a rusty old Cortina to my name. Now I’ve got kids as old as I was then, my mum’s gone, and my whole life down there in the mad churn of the world is completely different, yet right now, and from this elevated perspective, I’m reassured a vital part of me remains the same, that there is little to separate that earlier walk from this one, for such is the magic of the fells, always stripping away the egoic delusions of who and what we think we are, and dismissing too the imaginary constraints of linear time.

The best walk is always the next one, and all walks are equally memorable, yet remembered in no particular order, so for a time, we are indeed ageless. Wordsworth wrote of this in more penetrating form in his “intimations of immortality”, that it is indeed possible to recover what we feel we have lost to time. But for that to mean anything to us personally, I think we need to have a spent a life-time wandering the high-ways, among these gaunt cathedrals and echoing amphitheatres, listening to, or rather feeling, what it is they have to say to us.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, its fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give,
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Thank you William.

But we’ve burst seventeen hundred words now, which puts us considerably to the north of verbose, so far as this particular medium goes, and here we are still, up by Angle Tarn, munching on a butty like we’ve not a care in the world. It’s also looking like the rain’s going to catch up with us any second. We don’t mind that, though we might give the Pikes a miss, and just shamble our way down to Boardale because, although we’ve only done about four miles so far, it feels more like eight, and we’ve another three back to the car which are going to feel like six. And maybe it’s time we bought a better pair of boots, maybe even a pair of Scarpas like our old ones. But it took us twenty years to wear those things out, and they still weren’t worn in by the time they fell apart, and have we even got another twenty years of blisters in us?

Sure we do.

A fish leaps, lands with a splosh and focuses down our attention to the mindful moment. Then the rain comes on, its “scanty vesture” advancing earnestly, across the fells, raises a hiss from the clear waters of the tarn. Hat’s off to the Met office; they forecast this five days ago, and they’re only half an hour out. How do they do that?

It’s a firm rain, but soft on the skin and warm. Then comes that rich scent from the earth, something fecund and exhilarating about it, like a fine malt whiskey. Sure, there are worse places to be than the Far Eastern Fells in June. Even in the rain.

Three miles still to the car, did you say?

They can wait.

Hartsop vire to threshthwaite

Hartsop

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journals-of-dorothy-wordsworthDorothy was the sister of William Wordsworth, also friend to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Though a diarist, and poet in her own right, she never sought publication and it was only in 1897, some forty years or so after her death, her earliest hand-written journals were taken up and printed by the historian William Knight.

They concern just two months of the year 1798, spent at Alfoxden, when Dorothy was 27. We also have 1800 to 1803 at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, though of the latter, only 1802 is complete. The Helen Darbishire version takes another look at the handwritten originals for the Dove Cottage years. For Alfoxden, the William Knight version is the only academic source now, Knight having ‘mislaid’ the original. She kept other journals – accounts of travel in Scotland and Europe, but these are not included here.

What’s striking is the diaries are either neutral in their bearing or wholly positive of the persons mentioned in them. We must therefore assume Dorothy was, to a degree, self-censoring, and this is fair enough, especially since it’s known she wrote with the expectation that at least her brother would be reading them – and no one is that magnanimous if a journal is guaranteed its privacy. In short, there is nothing here for the muck-raker, not even in that much psychoanalysed pre-wedding scene of June 1802.

But let’s go back to 1798. This was a significant year, marking the collaboration of William Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the publication of their “Lyrical Ballads”, a book that kicked off the English Romantic movement. The preface, written by Wordsworth, can be read as a manifesto of the movement’s aims and, for anyone who wants to know what English Romanticism is, or was, this is still the best place to start.

Then we have the early years in Grasmere, this period marking several revisions of the Lyrical Ballads. But Dorothy’s presence at the birth of English Romanticism is more significant than that, though in ways not always easy to get at. For a start, it seems rather a small slice of a life, just fragments of three and a bit years. So what is it about Dorothy’s jottings that’s kept them in print all this time? Is it simply that she was the sibling of a famous poet, is it prurient interest in the nature of their relationship, or do we glimpse something special in Dorothy herself?

Though I admire the Lake Poets, I find them difficult. Dorothy on the other hand is immediately accessible, her journals capturing with great brevity the most colourful pictures of her life and of the natural world. She was, in a sense, the mind-camera for William and Coleridge, who used her diary as a reference, the result being you will find echoes of Dorothy’s words, and the scenes she captured, in their work. She was also, in a sense, the embodiment of everything the Romantic movement was trying to get at – something profound in its simplicity, in plainness of language, and purity of feeling.

I plead ignorance of Alfoxden, but I do know the area around Grasmere, a village now so overlaid with an impenetrable veneer of chocolate-box tourism and dotted with the weekend residences of city-gazillionaires, it’s impossible to imagine any sort of authentic life being lived there at all. If we want to know what that place contributed to the Romantic movement, two centuries ago, we turn to the Lake poets, but if we want to flip through the stunningly vivid mind-pictures of life in the Lakes back then, and rub shoulders with its characters, then we read Dorothy’s journals. And in them we discover all is not lost, that if we can get away from the honey-pots, and beyond the fell gates, it’s still possible to see and feel the world as she did.

Much of the charm of these journals lies in their capture of nature; of the land and the weather and the creatures great and small, also a sense of the people in the landscape, moving upon it more intimately than we do now, and mostly, of course, on foot. The lack of petty tittle-tattle, though marked, does not diminish their interest. There is also great pleasure to be had from comparing Dorothy’s seasons in that brief window of her life with our own, and the feeling, still, of a Romantic connection with times past, as if no time has passed at all.

Given the immense age of the universe, a single life is no more than a match in the dark, a brief enough time in which to blink and respond to what we see before the light flickers and dies. But some matches are brighter than others, and some minds quicker at seeing what needs to be seen and responding with genuine heart and feeling. It’s also valuable, during the brief flaring of one’s own light if we can be shown what others have noted as worthy, because it gives us a head start in the growing of our own souls. Of course, not everyone possesses such a talent as makes it worth our while, but to my mind at least, Dorothy Wordsworth did. And I think that’s why we’re still reading her journals today.

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The Yarrow Reservoir

So, we’re leaving the car by the Yarrow reservoir this afternoon, tucked into one of the cuttings along Parson’s Bullough road. It’s a cold sun sort of day, enough to tease us outdoors, but the daffodils are looking shivery, so we’ll need to zip up. There’s a good light on the reservoir, and the sun just low enough now for the contrasts to be interesting.

The Yarrow reservoir: late Victorian period, built to supply water to Liverpool and, along with its much larger neighbours, the Anglezarke and the Rivington reservoirs, it was all something of a tragedy if you consider the land and the farms and the homes that were sacrificed to progress hereabouts. But they’ve been an unchanging fixture of my own life and, as far as reservoirs go, they’re beautiful and have bedded in well.

This afternoon’s jaunt will cover about three miles, where we’ll find a varied and fast changing scenery of moors and meadows, woods and running water, also a few dark tales along the way.

yarrow reservoir mapWe start with a bit of quiet road-walking, first across Alance Bridge, which spans the tail end of the reservoir. You sometimes get idiot kids tomb-stoning from the bridge in the summer, but it achieved a different kind of notoriety a few years back when murderers crept out of one the darker cracks of Bolton and attempted to dispose of a body by dropping it over the side here. It’s not a story I’m happy to be adding to local lore, and it reminds me these remoter stretches of Lancashire are perhaps best not explored after dark.

Next comes the climb up Hodge Brow, eventually passing an old barn on our left. This is a queer building, marked as Morris House on early six inch maps. I’ve known it variously as a ruin, then a bunkhouse and more lately a millionaires des-res project that’s stalled and has now lain empty for years. It looks about another winter away from the weather getting in too. There are warnings of spycams. This is a bleak corner, the wind unchecked, roaring down off Anglezarke moor to rattle the tiles – pretty enough in Summer, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d want to over-winter here.

Past Morris’ we’re onto Dean Head Lane, a narrow cut of a road, water pooling in the reedy hedgrows as it drains from the moor. It’ll take us on to the pretty little village of Rivington eventually, or up by Sheephouse Lane and Hoorden Stoops, to the more populous Belmont. There are fine views of Anglezarke to the north and, further off to the east is Noon and Winter Hill – something shaggy and frigid about them this afternoon though, in spite of the sun, like they’re hung over or still grumpy after the summer heath fires.

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The path by Dean Wood

At Wilkocks farm (1670), we cut down the path along by Dean Wood which skirts the deep ravine in which the wood nestles. I’ve often fancied a closer look at the wood as legend has it there’s a fine cascade hiding in there, but this place is considered so precious to the region, it’s sealed off and managed as a secure nature reserve – access by permission only, and you’d better have a good reason for asking.

There’s something creepy about the path, an old story about a farm labourer coming along here in the early nineteen hundreds. He felt a “presence” behind him, then turned to see, in his own words, the devil “horns and all”. Terrified, he ran to Rivington and told his tale, swearing all was true. Three months later they found his body at the bottom of the ravine in Dean Wood having apparently fallen from the path around where he claimed to have had his near miss with old Nick.

It’s a story recounted first, I believe, in John Rawlinson’s “About Rivington” and I’ve been careful not to add anything of my own to it here. Writers usually can’t help embellishing where they feel a story lacks detail. What I will say though is reports of such Forteana tend to cluster in the liminal zones, and this one certainly fits that pattern: the open meadows coming down to the edge of the wood, and then the deep ravine itself forming a void of air, all of which  makes for a fine transition from one thing to another.

One theory is we “imagine” such apparitions, but that doesn’t make them any less real, at least not to those experiencing them. On a fine sunny afternoon like this it’s just a story of uncertain vintage – no names, no precise dates, so it’s impossible to research more fully. To my knowledge Old Nick hasn’t been seen again around Dean Wood, but would I come down here at dead of night? Well, let’s just say, I’d be tempted to go another way.

I remember John Rawlinson as a kindly and wise old gentleman – a leading light of the Chorley Historical and Archeological Society, also a good friend of my father’s, both of them a half century gone now, both legends in their own way and loving every inch of the moors hereabouts.

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Turner Embankment – Yarrow Reservoir

After offering us tantalising glimpses of the forbidden, sylvan delights of Dean Wood, and hopefully avoiding any diabolical disturbance, the path brings us out into open meadows and with a fine view of the Yarrow reservoir, overlooking the somewhat angular Turner Embankment, so named after the house that was demolished to make way for it. Rawlinson tells us the house was most likely salvaged, and the materials put into building Dean Wood house, which nestles in a cosy bower just to our left here. There’s something pleasing about the close-mown lines of the embankment, I think,  with the trees still bare against the sky and the foreground meadows all lit by late afternoon sunshine.

Now we’re off along Dean Wood lane, through a fine avenue of chestnuts, just coming into leaf, and there’s a clear brook tinkling alongside us for company. We can walk on to Rivington from here, perhaps have a brew at the chapel tea rooms, but that’s for another day. Today we’ll take the path around the Yarrow instead, which we could follow pretty much all the way back to the car if we wanted, but if you don’t mind, I want to make a bit of a detour because I can hear the rumble of water and I suspect the spillway is running.

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The Yarrow Reservoir overflow

The Yarrow spillway is a spectacular feature hereabouts, a series of cascading steps that takes the excess from the Yarrow and feeds it with style into the Anglezarke reservoir. It isn’t often running these days, but there’s a good bit of water today, and it’s always worth a photograph, especially now with the sun settling upon it and adding a golden glow to the highlights.

I try a couple of shots with the lens wide open and manage 1/2000th of a second on the shutter. This has a dramatic effect on the capture of water, freezing it and rendering an image that’s essentially true but something the eye wouldn’t normally see. There must be thousands of shots of these falls on Instagram and Flikr, and a good many of them mine, but I never tire of it.

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F1.8 – 1/2000 sec

Okay, it’s just a short way now back to Parson’s Bullough and the car. Then it’s boots off, and home for a brew. A pleasant walk in familiar territory, but always something a little different to see.

Just one last look back at that gorgeous spillway, and we’re done:

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