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There are stronger hints of spring, now. I see buds on the hedgerows ripe for opening, where they’re touched by the sun, and I catch the first pungent whiffs of allium along the riverbank. The river’s high and swift today, after rains. We’ve had two incidents of people falling in trying to rescue their dogs. This would be comical were it not potentially so serious. The first occasion I was on hand to help. The second was more difficult and involved the police, fire and ambulance services. Today is not a day for falling into the river, and I hope the dog-people, of whom there are many this afternoon, are mindful of that.


The meadows are slippery under an inch of water and make for heavy going. Approaches to the stiles and kissing-gates, which always seem so mysteriously attractive to cows, are trodden by the press of their hooves into a gloopy commando assault-course. My peregrinations have boiled down to two loops from the home village, now, both around five miles. We’re heading east today, up-river towards Eccleston. I have the camera, but I’ll take some persuading to get it out, because by now I’ve shot this walk to death. It’s a sunny afternoon, but I’m finding such days uninteresting now – photographically, I mean – a stinging, bright, squinting sun, and all the colours washed out. Strange to say, but I’m favouring a bit of cloud to add texture.


It’s funny how the footpath signs disappear. They’re obviously very fragile things. There’s often no more than tattered remnants left clinging to a gate or to a post to prove there was ever a right of way this way at all. Sometimes the post has disappeared as well, or you’ll come across it overthrown and tangled deep in the hedgerow. The council needs to make them of stronger stuff. I’m thinking of what the sportsmen must make their “Private fishing” signs from. The landed’s “no trespassing” signs too, seem to last forever – rude, officious and imperishable. I liken them to ruddy-faced farmers, legs astride as if to present their phallic authority over the land. The farmer has a shotgun in the crook of his arm. His steel toe-capped boot, encrusted with cow-shit, is swinging for my arse,…


Sorry, I digress. That was a long time ago. But such things, encountered in childhood, colour one’s outlook to land and one’s rights of access to it.


“F&%k off my land.”

“I’m not interested in traipsing your land willy-nilly, Mr Farmer. Indeed, I have better things to do, and would rather avoid this abominable scrap heap of a farm-yard if you would but kindly direct me safely through it. Also, I’ll walk my path as a mark of my diminishing freedoms. Interfere with that, and you’ll bring a war of ramblers down on your head.”


They are a precious thing, those green pecked lines on the Ordnance Survey 1:25000 maps. They are a fine Irish lacework of exploration, of fresh perspectives. And they are the gateway to a secret. Let me whisper it: they put you back in touch with the soul of the world. If you want to know a place, to feel it, you seek out the green pecked lines. You will never know a place from the roadside or through the windows of a car. You have to walk the paths that thread among the trees and the meadows. But sometimes the landed take those paths, your paths, and use the anvil of the law to straighten them out, to redirect them away from their properties. They channel them between high fences, between barbed wire and electric shocks. They keep to the letter of the law by right of way, but rob entirely the deeper meaning of the footpath network. They deny you your right to soul.


I have a path like that at the back of my house, once a meandering smudge through buttercups, across a pair of sleepy meadows. At certain times, you’d get a moonrise between a gap in the trees and on some nights, misty nights, say, that was a real jaw-dropper. Then the money came and bought the meadows for their horses. The path is now a pointless ginnel between squared up paddocks. It is an A to B of nothingness and all between destroyed. Money buys you space and the means to keep horses, but it clearly does not restore the sight of those who are already blind.


I find the “private fishing” signs along the river here an affront to decency. Big and white, they shout their possession, contaminate the scene, and ruin the photograph. I mean FFS, is there a problem with people fishing along here and not paying their dues? It seems odd to me. It would be pleasant to rummage along the river bank, see what’s about: Water-vole? Heron? I’m told there are salmon in the river now. But are there kingfisher? Alas, I am forbidden from casual investigation. I must stick to the path, and not linger too long in case my tardiness be misinterpreted as an encampment. Is it really true trespass is soon to be a criminal offence now? Will then the cops be swooping if I stray from the path? How long a stretch will it be for affronting the landed with my bootprints?


In my novel, the Singing Loch, it was in the wilder places the protagonists touched the soul of the world. It was the thing that gave life meaning. Without it everything else turned grey, like ash. The genesis of that novel lies thirty years in the past, in the emotions aroused by a book by Marion Shoard. Its sentiments still inform my philosophy. Around every town or village there’s a ring of dog turds, about a quarter mile out from the last house. Within that ring, all is tired and grey, void of any vestige of the world-soul. It’s trampled out, like the land around those stiles and kissing gates by the heels of cows. You’ve got to get beyond that ring, into the quiet zone, and among the shy creatures, before you can hear the earth breathe again. The footpath network will take you there, it will reconnect you.


Maybe that’s it then. The landed would rather you didn’t discover this secret for yourselves, and that’s why they hide the footpath signs. That’s why they tear them down (I can think of no other reason). They don’t want you waking up from your slavery. After all, who else is going to pay for their luxury, and the oats for their horses?

Ooh, it’s been a long time since I had a pop at the toffs. I quite enjoyed that. Forgive me such indulgence. Anyway,…


I brought back just the one picture. It was a blaze of late afternoon sunlight, and long shadows thrown by a tight little trio of trees. They spoke to me, in that instant, of the river, and the wind and of past rains. But I couldn’t capture it. Even with five brackets overlaid and through a Leica lens, it was a near-white-out barely rescued by post-processing trickery.

I don’t know how much longer we’ll be obliged to stay at home, stay local. But we’d all do well to get out those maps, study our local footpath network, and discover its secrets. There’s more to our land than space for rich men’s horses. Go find it.

Goodnight all.

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mariaWe spend on average around eight hours a day staring at a screen. We are also moving our lives online. Much of the paperwork essential to identity and legal responsibility – certificates, documents and such – are no longer printed and posted out to us, but digitised, stored in “the cloud” and accessed through our computers.The same goes for entertainment: photographs, music, video, books, games,.. they are all losing their physical nature, becoming digital and accessed through a device.

On the one hand this is very convenient, but I wonder if I am alone in finding it also slightly disturbing. Is the “place” I actually I live becoming irrelevant. I can be removed to the other side of the world tomorrow, yet pick up the online elements of my life without missing a beat. But what kind of life is that, exactly? And what if I were to lose access to this information? Clearly I would still be alive, but it would be as if I had not existed before – no records, documents, pictures, words, music,… nothing to show for my life.

What is it then in life that defines us?

In the haste to digitise, it feels like we’re shovelling the earth out from under our feet, feeding the machine with everything we deem necessary to our being, indeed to civilisation itself – our memories, our laws, our art, our possessions. We do this because it is efficient, but at the same time it minimises our concept of home to the point where it risks disappearing altogether. Is this what we really want?

The elimination of the home would suit the machine-based global corporate intelligence. After all, businesses no longer deem it necessary to advertise their actual physical location. Corporate location is a flexible concept – here today, there tomorrow, depending on the market, on whatever is most efficient. This is made all the easier since these corporations no longer make anything. Employees too must therefore step onto this conveyor of placeless, facelessness. We interview for a job in Manchester UK, end up working out of an office in New York, but much of the time we are in the air between any city you care to mention, anywhere in the world. And the higher we climb within this corporate intelligence, the more placeless, faceless, and the more homeless we must become.

In the globalised world of work, it doesn’t matter your home for most of your life is an aeroplane seat and a plastic hotel room. It doesn’t matter your world is contained behind a single anonymous window in a glass and concrete edifice that is both anywhere and nowhere at the same time, because your true window on your world, the only world that’s beginning to matter is your laptop, your handheld, your ubiquitous touchscreen interface. We are increasingly viewing our world from within the machine, not because the machine serves us, but because we have fallen inside of it.

Yet when I look through all those Instagram and Flickr streams, the imagery speaks of a love of place, a love of the world beyond the screen. I see sunsets, lakes, trees, mountains, cities too – even the grungy bits – also a love of home, of private places, private spaces, places with a physical location that’s familiar and means something. I see coffee cups on tables, fruit in a basket, pets, loved ones, and all the things we own and take pleasure in – our cars, bikes, clothes, our fancy wristwatches, an old valve radio that sits in defiance of the times, a guitar, a battered but exquisitely comfy armchair. How much of this, I wonder, is a lament for what we are in danger of losing?

Religious teachings tell us material things do not matter, that in fact it’s spiritually limiting to identify one’s sense of self with stuff. So the machine might argue it is doing us good, rendering such symbols of identity obsolete, stripping them from us, leaving us nothing tangible of ourselves but our skins. But it’s also through stuff we exercise our sensual enjoyment of the world.

The coffee tastes good, the leather of the watch strap smells exquisite, as does the jasmine and the autumn leaves. The sunset over the ocean stills us with its palpable silence. The sound of the leaves on the trees in the breeze, the feel of the wind in our faces,… we cannot digitise these things. Is what I see online a nostalgic lament for a world that is slowly slipping through our fingers?

The machine is unashamedly and woodenly Victorian in outlook and function. As such it is like all the machines that have gone before it – amoral and unconscious. Get too close to such a thing and it will tear your arm off, because it’s not smart enough to know you’re there at all. Its function is profit through the algorithms of increased sales and internal efficiency. And to the machine the most efficient solution for the human beings who serve it is for us to exist in a form of semi-suspended animation, in rented, minimalistic, cell-like rooms that cater for the basic bodily functions, while allowing us to perform those few tasks remaining to biological entities via whatever interface the machine comes up with. And when we fall on the wrong side of the efficiency equation, we find ourselves erased, our access denied.

We think our memories, our increasingly digitised lives are becoming safer, more secure, that the online world, the machine, even provides us with a kind of immortality, that those precious old family photographs are safer scanned and held online than kept in a dusty old shoebox, vulnerable to fire and flood. My blog, my Instagram feed will outlive me, yes, but now I’m wondering if their function will only be to serve as a last cry, the lament of an inmate locked inside a machine. For a long time I have seen my future bound up with this thing. Now I am wondering if I should find ways of escaping. Were it not for the voice it grants my creative urges, I would run screaming. Or is it that we find more the secret to what it means to be alive by reflecting on the machine which is essentially dead.

We must remember we are only permitted this storage for our online personal belongings in exchange for permission for the corporate computers to scan and plunder it in order to profile, locate, and target us for advertising. It’s a crude exchange and, like anything else in business and technology, liable to a step change when something new comes along. When the clever, faceless, homeless corporate brains work out a way for product adverts to be subliminally and legally transmitted directly into our heads, then all the computers holding all our lives, so meticulously recorded by ourselves, will be deemed inefficient – at which point, unless we pay for their upkeep, they will be deleted. And when we die, and the direct debit bounces back,… yes,… deleted.

So when you are posting pictures of the things and of the places you love, when you are writing about your life to your imaginary reader, do not mistake the picture or the writing for the life you lead. It’s obvious really, the online life lacks the sensuality that makes us human. So beware this digitisation of the world. Question it. And in the mean time make your homes with impunity, fill them with your idiosyncratic nick-nackery, smell the coffee, stroke your pets, make love, go out and watch the sun setting,… be what your are. Be sensual.

And remember,…

We are not the machine.

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slaidburn nov 2014

Slaidburn – November 2014

Slaidburn is the self styled touring capital of the Forest of Bowland which this year celebrates 50 years of being designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. Bowland is a vast tract of peat upland in northern England, mostly wilderness, dotted with occasional rounded hills which lend a gently soaring splendour to bog and windy bleakness. It’s also grouse country, much of the land hereabouts being owned by a few wealthy individuals for farming and shooting – one of them being the Duke of Westminster.

Slaidburn also styles itself as a centre for hillwalking, but I’ve never thought of it that way. Indeed I am from a generation of walkers for whom Bowland was never much on the radar due its aggressive attitude set against public access. Rights of way have always existed here, but they were sparse and I always found them to be of little use for a day’s walking, tending more towards the impossibly remote and leading to nowhere you could easily get back to from a parked car. Attractively named peaks: Wolfhole Crag, Wards Stone, Nicky Nook, and many others were simply out of bounds. Interesting walks – horseshoes, rounds, and any genuine, intimate exploration of this so called  “area of outstanding natural beauty” inevitably involved trespass.

As an apprenticed walker I grew up on tales of a past generation for whom forays into Bowland had the air of a special forces raid, avoiding local spies and gamekeepers in order to bag the peak and brag about it afterwards. A friend of mine was once run to ground among the crags of Ward’s Stone by the keeper’s dog. He befriended it by sacrificing his packed lunch, which kept the dog happy while he made good his escape, losing the keeper in the mist. This story is possibly a myth, but a good one. For myself I preferred to avoid conflict and usually headed on up to the Lakes, or the Dales instead where the ways were more certain, the peaks loftier, and the welcome more assured.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000 did much to secure access to Bowland’s upland regions, but actual walkable paths are still sparse. There are some permissive routes, all liable closure at short notice. I’ve had a day’s walk cancelled by local restrictions – access to Ward’s Stone peremptorily closed because of a shoot. That day I remember watching as a convoy of glittering black Range Rovers crossed the russet moor like a fleet of galleons. Inside were quaintly dressed gentlemen with guns. I’d driven 50 miles, so turned around and drove 50 more back home.

Slaidburn was always more of a place to bring the kids for picnics on the green, not usually to walk, but there are a number of lowland routes you can enjoy from here without trespassing, though you need good navigation skills and keen eyesight to spot the way markers and, where the markers have “disappeared”, a fair amount of imagination and a magnanimous attitude to failure.

A foggy day in November isn’t the best of times to visit anywhere, but Slaidburn put on a good show today, managing to look homely and quaint. Mostly sixteenth century and with very little modern development, this attractive, unspoiled village – formerly in the west riding of Yorkshire – has a timeless quality about it. Photographs of Slaidburn are best dated by the style of the motor cars. Shoot in sepia today and the village still has a timeless air about it. Built from a mixture of locally sourced limestone and sandstone, it has a picturesque quality, aided by the lack of road-signage, telegraph poles and powerlines that festoon other places. By contrast modern developments do not respect the local character of a place, indeed their building materials may well have come from China. Not so Slaidburn. This is definitely England, and northern, and very, very old – so old it is, in part, still Feudal.

My walk for the day took me past the Hark to Bounty pub, following the little road, Town End, northwards, out of the village, where I picked up the first of a series of farm tracks and then fast vanishing footpaths that threaded their way across upland meadows, back towards the peaty glide of the River Hodder, at Newton. Hill fog and near 90% humidity made for a steamy walk with misting spectacles and rather poor views across the Bowland Fells.

Newton in Bowland 1There’s a bleak grandeur about this landscape, something that stirs the heart, but I have to admit my heart wasn’t exactly on the walk today so much as it had been on the drive over Waddington Fell from Clitheroe. I’ve crossed that fell dozens of times in hatch-back commuter-mules, playing eye-spy with the kids to keep them occupied. Today I’d driven alone in a little roadster that’s been making every journey I take in her something really special. She was down on the carpark, waiting for me, muck splattered, and to be honest all I was thinking about was enjoying the drive home again.

I am not as attached to Bowland as other walkers are. I suppose it’s had its back to me for too long, and to be frank there are other places more understanding of and amenable to my motivations as a hill man. I was open to inspiration of course, as ever, but it was slow coming.

But then, sometimes, the unexpected happens, like fetching up on a dour, black, wind-blasted farm, sunk in mud, like something from a Gothic novel. And there were birds – great murmurations of birds, like smoke, wheeling about, rendering alive the aged roof of the byre in which cattle sulked in muck, birds perched brassily long their backs and heads, robbing feed and bedding – a mad cacophony of shrill birds and lowing cattle.

Lonely places, these, a hard living from the earth, hunkered down among decaying farm detritus and, for the walker, always something intimidating about it when the path turns through the yard, and the dogs are barking, and the black windows of the farm are staring at you in accusation. And the tractors look tired and rusty. I would have liked a friendly face, a cheery wave, someone to point me in the right direction, but there was no one about and I had to guess my way. I’ve had a chill feeling in my gut all weekend, thinking about that place – a place ravaged by marauding murmurations of birds. And loneliness.

The paths became less helpful as I went on, markers missing, ladder styles that lured you into the wrong meadow – meadows from which there was no escape without a long back tracking – and all this shenanigans with GPS and Sci-Fi navigation app on my ‘phone to mark the way. No, this is hardly a popular area for pedestrians, and I wondered what had brought me there other than curiosity. Sometimes the way could only be discerned by a bit of rubber insulation over the electric fences, then giving on to long trackless runs where it appeared neither man nor beast had trod in centuries. If you like your waking lonesome, then Bowland is for you. Come November, midweek, you’ll feel like the last man alive.

dunnow hall

Dunnow Hall – Slaidburn

I was glad to pick up the surer way of the riverside path at Newton, by the Hodder, a path that led me back to Slaidburn across the wide, landscaped, sheep cropped meadows, and under the multifarious windows of the imposing Dunnow Hall. I had been walking for a couple of hours and seen not another soul, but came now upon my first encounter with fellow man – a muddy Landrover patrolling the fields.

I got a wave and a friendly nod as I made way through thickening mist and a light rain. Tough life, farming, summer sun and winter rain, here as anywhere and enough to do without having to maintain a footpath network as well, so the occasional blundering pedestrian can cross your land without getting lost. Loneliness is a state of mind. We are all lonely. Looking for connection, for a friendly face.

I appreciated that wave. Good to know Slaidburn is still a friendly place. Seek it out sometime; take a picnic on a sunny summer’s day, some bread for the ducks. But walking?

Nah,..

Now, driving on the other hand:

mazda slaidburn 2014

Mazzy – Slaidburn, Late November 2014.

 

 

Yes, as a touring stop-off, a quick coffee in the cafe and even a look at the Church of St Andrews (est in the 1400’s) and which I highly recommend, Slaidburn’s your place. But unless you’re coming here in a Mk2.5 Mazda MX5, designed in Hiroshima, Japan,… I’ll wager you won’t enjoy the drive half as much as I did!

🙂

Goodnight all.

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