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The Dam at Drybones, Birkacre, Coppull

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

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

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

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

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

Around Birkacre Lodge

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

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

The lone tree

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

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

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

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

The Oak Tree, Birkacre

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

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

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bootsThe last pair of Scarpas* I bought came from a walking shop in Keswick in 1993. I had kids on the way and I was thinking if I left it any longer the budget would be shredded and a pair of Scarpas would be off the menu for the foreseeable future. They’re a decent boot, made in Italy and tend to suit a narrow foot like mine. I think I paid £80 for them, quite a lot at that time, at least relative to my mortgage-denuded salary. The shop’s gone now, an old-world place of the kind that existed in the days before outdoor gear became fashionable, high-tech, and lucrative. I remember the guy who served me wore Dalesman britches, a flat cap, and smelled strongly of Condor pipe-tobacco. He also knew his stuff and I often wonder at what point in our near-past such people became extinct, and why.

It used to be that only scouts and ramblers took an interest in rain-proofs and boots and Dubbin, climbers too of course, but they were always a special breed who got their gear from places where fussing over the colour of your pants would get you thrown out. My, how times have changed!

boots2I had twenty years out of those Scarpas, walked much of the Lakes and the Dales in them. I recall they took a bit of breaking in but proved reliable and surefooted thereafter and in all kinds of weather. When they finally succumbed to the ravages of time, I bought a different, well known brand, not a cheap boot by any means but, whilst robust and comfy from the word go, they proved alarmingly slippery on rock. I persevered with them off and on at the expense of some confidence in the fells and in the end felt more secure in cheaper boots, though they tend to last only a few years, before opening up to the elements. And since my current pair of budget boots succumbed and let water in as I was fording Malham Beck, last weekend,… well,…

It was perhaps a touch of both nostalgia for those surer times that sent me out in search of another pair of Scarpas. I found them on the high-street, in what I prefer to call a hiker’s boutique. The guy selling them had no idea what they were, but when I slid my feet into them, the boots smiled and said, “Oh yes, we’re the ones for you.” So I paid the man – double what I paid in ’93.

The shop was replete with fantastically patterned high-tech fabrics, stuff I could never have for shame worn in the hills, including jackets costing £300 I’d be frightened of getting grubby, also bit and bobs of superfluous hardware I struggled to find the point of lugging. Conversely, of the more pragmatic and essential maps and compasses there were none. (we should never rely on a smartphone for map and compass).

The man offered me a discount if I signed up to a card that would have cost me £5 a year. This is a new concept  – they hook into your bank account, harvest your spending habits so they might target you with sinisterly apposite marketing, and charge you for the privilege. I declined their generosity then left with my Scarpas, feeling I had rescued them from perdition. I hope we get on well and they’re kind to me. Indeed, if I get twenty years out of them, like I did the last pair, I’ll be eighty and well pleased on account of both the boots and me having made it that far. I’ll be sure to report back here if we make it.

Oh, I know,… I have the sense of spending my whole life living out of time, and I’m never sure if it’s me who needs to catch up with the world or the other way around. But what really matters is that when we tie our boots on, we forget what the world’s up to for a while. They carry us into the hills and provide for us a secure footing so we might return safely and feeling all the better for the experience of having seen the world from a transcendent perspective, one far removed from the everyday where the nitty-gritty simply gets in your eye and stops you from seeing things as clearly as you otherwise might.

*Other boot brands are available, and Scarpa didn’t pay me to write this, though I am open to offers.

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