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Posts Tagged ‘countryside’

The little roads of the Lakes are more demanding on the vehicle and on the nerves than those of the Dales. They zig-zag into the sky and follow tortuous routes, hugging the fells with steep russet and rock on one side, and fresh air on the other, not always fenced. The gulleys are deep. Drop a tyre off the tarmac and you’re going to struggle to get it back on. Do that at speed and you’ll damage the car, do it on the fresh air side of the road and there’s a chance you’re going to roll down the fell. Perhaps I exaggerate, but that’s the impression these roads leave you with, that you’d better be sharp about your wits.

They are among the most sporting routes for the recreational motorist, also for the motorcyclist and the cyclist. They are also “get-to” routes for the hillwalker, delivering him deep into the heart of the Lake’s more splendidly mountainous regions. They seem even narrower to me now than when I first drove them thirty years ago. It’s as if the fells are trying to squeeze them into impassable threads, erase them with the passage of time and harsh winters. They’re busier too, and cars these days are much bigger, much heavier, much fatter than they were. And basic motoring skills have been replaced with electronics that’s useless in these off-grid places.

Even with a proliferation of pull-ins for passing, you’re going to struggle at the busier times. You’re going to find cars parked in them, rendering the way impassable. Meet a blimp-like SUV coming the other way and it’s going to gawp at you like a zombified wildebeast, unable to go forwards or back, so you’ve got to remember each passing place as you pass it, and be prepared to back up, let these dumb creatures safely by, since they are incapable of working out how to do it for themselves.

I speak of course as the only perfect driver in the world.

Maybe I’m just older, but the narrow Lakes roads are not as much fun as they used to be, mainly on account of the usage they’re getting now. They’re also in poor shape. I took the Mazda over the little route from Great Langdale to Little Langdale recently, found the road frost-broken and deeply potholed. I bottomed the car in one hole, scraped the sill. Then I got stuck behind a bulbous Focus ST too, boy racer at the wheel, going at a walking pace, afraid to scratch his car. If you’re wanting to drive these routes, come early, keep your fingers crossed you meet nothing coming the other way and come in a well sprung, small car with lots of guts.

But for all of that they’re very beautiful roads to travel, allowing for many an intimate contact with the sublime nature of the Lake District mountain landscape. It’s better by far of course if you can muster the energy to put your feet on the ground and haul your bones up the paths, get yourself in among the secret folds of the hills, but the little roads give you at least a taste of it.

I remember a week in Austria, surrounded by mountains on an awesome scale, like in a depiction of fairy-land. The following week I was in the Lakes, thinking it would seem tame by comparison, but I discovered all it lacked was the vertical scale, having lost nothing whatsoever of its visceral power. The impact of somewhere like the Austrian Tryrol is obvious in its scale and sheer vertical brutality, while the Lakes engages at a deeper lever.

The power of the Lakes is in part in its age. These are among the oldest of mountains. They are hard rock, worked by weather on a geological time-scale that’s as near to infinity as makes no difference to mankind. They are also worked by mankind who has beetled among them for ten thousand years. And their impact on the senses is in their compactness, so much beauty and drama, darkness and light, fell and field and lake, all of it encompassed in the graceful turn of an eagle’s wing*.

The road threads its way by Blea Tarn, a shallow depression nestled in the palm of the land, fingers and thumbs of crag curling skywards all around, then it dips into the Little Langdale Valley, affording its most spectacular views of a sublime loveliness. A hairpin-junction at the bottom grants the choice of ways: left for the village, and escape to the broader routes through Elterwater, or right for the long and equally narrow road up by Three Shire’s Stone, then Cockley Beck, Wrynose, and Hardknott, all the way to Eskdale if you’ve the nerve for it. Many drive these ways for the challenge, for the sheer exhilarating thrill and beauty of it. They are the ultimate test of confidence in yourself and in your machine, but I wouldn’t recommend it on a weekend afternoon, or a Bank Holiday.

The Mazda escaped its rough treatment on the Little Langdale road with only cosmetic abrasions, easily mended, and my love affair with open-topped motoring enables me to put this minor wounding into perspective. It was a pleasurable drive, somewhat spicy, a drive I imagine could only be topped on a thundering old English motorbike, or a fly-through by Tornado jet.

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throstle's nest

So, today I went back to Marsden, setting for my novel Durleston Wood, also the place I was born. There’s a walk here I’ve been doing since childhood -woodland, meadow and riverside. I used to walk it in company with the Faery. Don’t believe in the Faery? Doesn’t matter; they don’t live here any more.

It’s impossible to overlook the changes that have taken place, the suburbanisation, the population increase, and its effect on the quiet places. Durleston is tattered around the edges now, and worse, it has been labelled by the council as amenity,…. as uggh,… country park. Meanwhile the spread of neighbouring Middleton drifts south year on year, its developments an artist’s impression, cast upon the blighted green; another meadow gone, and then another, until we reach the bounding Saracens – waste bins overflowing with bags of dog waste. Little wonder then the Faery have fled, gone gagging for cleaner air.

There was a time when Durleston meant something. Entering the wood from the hurly burly of the world you could feel the silence. It slowed the pulse, slowed the pace, drew you into the gentle currents of its ancient spirit ways. And there were voices, whisperings of imagination, of ghosts and sometimes you would hear the song of the Faery.

durleston wood cover smallBut to know Durleston, even as I knew it in the 60’s, was to know it in its dog days. Its intimacy was a comfort through the trials of childhood, its Faery song a familiar refrain, but a song also in part a lament, foretelling the subsequent decades of decline, of insult and injury. And my grief for its loss I have long carried like a thorn in my heart, long before it was lost, but lately I feel something else, too, something hostile, as if Durleston itself is rejecting me. It feels now like a former lover possessed by an unfamiliar and disturbing spirit. Her emissaries are the troll, the gnome, and their minion – the yapping dog.

Of which:

Descending into the wood today, I am accosted by a dog. It runs loose, aggressive, teeth bared, yapping. And ambling along the path comes the gnome. He is a corpulent youth, sweating in shorts and tee shirt, supermarket-bag of junk to hand. The gnome speaks:

“Better watch him mate,” he says, “or he’ll obliterate you.”

He seems a pleasant enough simpleton, sees no need to control his dog, thinks perhaps if it bites, it is my fault – not his concern. He does not think ahead, or through the consequences. Notwithstanding his odd and pointedly literate use of the word “obliterate”, his ignorance is his bliss.

My canine assailant is not a fighting dog, not a Pit Bull. Thank heavens then for small mercies. No, this is just a small yappy dog of indeterminate breed, daft as a brush, and domesticated only in the most token sense of the word. But even such dogs as this can draw blood, and draw it quick. I risk a nicked vein, torn flesh, and a trip to casualty. Some dogs too have a penchant for the buttocks. Perhaps the gnome would laugh at that.

“Got you there, didn’t he, mate?”

None of this is inconsequential, but neither is it the dog’s fault. The dog is being a dog, runner and rabble rouser in a pack of ignorance.

man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsIn quieter times, before the spread of Middleton, before words like “amenity” were dreamed, I have meditated for hours in the dappled, shady quiet of Durleston, times when the wood revealed its hidden treasures: the nuthatch, kingfisher, water-vole, all the shy creatures, and sometimes the perception would broaden further to reveal the Faery.

Now the paths are torn open, deep wounds oozing mud, cut by the passage of muscular men in fetish gear, on bicycles. You cannot meditate for hours in the silence of Durleston any more. A minute is your lot between the passage of town folk in their careless packs, yapping as loud as their dogs.

So,…

I’m thinking I should say something to this man, ask him to put his dog on a lead, but he has a plump child in tow and might be inclined to yap assertively in order not to lose face, and his dog might take his tone then as permission to engage. I say nothing, feel instead my magnanimity ebb, my greeting smile fade to stone. The dog stands its ground. I have seen a dog, like this one, attempt to bite a passing lorry, so I do not suppose myself immune. Nor am I confident I could dispatch my assailant as efficiently .

A child was recently mauled by a dog running loose like this amid Durleston’s amenity. There were many dogs loose that day. The owner melted into the crowds and did not come forward to claim the child’s blood as his responsibility. But children are small, men are big. It is a doggish thing, and natural to take down the easier game.

That I do not threaten its pack permits the dog’s attention to wander. It loses interest, shoots away into the wood. What larks! I am saved, and move quietly on, but have lost my train of thought now, my ease, my meditative stride. Where was I? Believer in Faery, indeed! Where are the buggers when you need them!

The route is busy today, more packs of careless, flat-footed folk with loose dogs at every turn. I find it tiresome, negotiating safe passage in a kingdom to which I once had free reign. A springer bounds towards me – not aggressive this time, so I an not afraid. It leaps playfully, splats a dash of drool upon my pants, slaps there also its filthy paws then bounds away. It is with a fixed grin I ready myself to accept an apology from the lady owner, but none is forthcoming. Perhaps she is embarrassed. Perhaps she feels I am the strange one here, a man alone, walking without a dog.

I abandon the route, come up instead by the Throstle’s Nest, a less trodden way. In the long ago, the meadows here were a steaming tip. The plough still brings up fresh shards of pot and glass with each pass, so that in the early spring, when the sun hits right and the crop is low, the way is all a glitter. The plough also breaks the shards into a fresh, keen sharpness, so I would not like to lose my footing for the ground is seeded here with teeth. It ensures I am little troubled by dogs though.

rye3I concede the loss of Durleston, conceded it even before it was lost. I got a novel out of it, so I count my blessings – parting gift of the Faery perhaps. There is town and country, and their ways are not alike. The country that abuts the town will always suffer the town’s corruption. Unlikewise, the town is never healed, never cleansed by its proximity to the shady dell.

The Faery shake their heads, bewildered. They move on at the sound of our footfall, and at the yapping of our dogs who seem more often our delinquent masters. I understand I too must move on, that this lament for a lost Arcadia is part of the human condition, something welling eternal from the soul of the world. Indeed I have moved on, moved away, feel it now on the in-breath as this antagonism in the spirit of Durleston, as on the out I still grieve its loss, feel myself floundering and in search of something I was surely nearer grasping as a child than I am now.

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pooI have a special relationship with the countryside, some might say eccentric, even a little Victorian. I see in it reflections of what the old Romantics would have called the sublime. I am a countryman, I suppose. I was brought up in it, still live in a rural village, and have resisted all my life the siren call and the bright lights and the fast food outlets of the ever encroaching environs of  Urbania. Unlike the countryside, Urbania to my eyes is the same wherever you find it, and it is always growing, always flowing, bustling, hustling, and always blowing out its litter into other people’s hedgerows. And to me, for all of its bright lights, Urbania is void of colour; it is a uniform, uninteresting grey.  You don’t need to go anywhere to find it; stand still for long enough, and it will come to you.

The sublime cannot be found everywhere in the countryside; it is a fickle thing, but for sure it is least likely to found where our constructions, or even our footprints encroach too greedily upon it. This is not to say we are always spoiling nature – we can find ways of living in harmony with it, but more often we don’t try, and the closer the borders of Urbania draw near, the less likely we are to care about such cerebral niceties as abiding in nature, and the quest for the sublime.

Rural communities understand how the moods, and even the shape of the land can inform and uplift the soul. The smaller the community, and the further away from Urbania, the more keenly will the rhythms and the currents of nature be felt. Urbanians though, take a different view. They see nature more as an “amenity”, or a convenient open space, allowing them to do those anti-social activities the towns and cities deny them, even if this is so basic a thing as providing somewhere for their dogs to run and dump (no I really do mean dump), or a convenient slope up which they can take their bicycles and churn the paths to slime on the downward run.

By contrast, the countryman will walk a path and leave no trace of his passing, not a bent twig nor torn piece of moss, nor are you likely to hear him passing. But Urbanians will yelp and squeal and eff and blind their way, and they will spill litter from their pockets as they go, like a trail of breadcrumbs as if they fear getting lost; they will set fire to stolen cars in the back lanes, and they will leave calling cards in the form of little bags of poo.

Yes poo!

rivington pike

Rivington Pike

I have written of the despoliation of Rivington before. Rivington is one of Lancashire’s most celebrated and most visited beauty spots. But visiting it again myself after the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I find matters reaching a crisis point, though I say this every year. The first thing my eyes alighted upon after parking my car and fastening on my boots, was a little bag of poo hanging cheekily from a tree. Beneath, and scattered around it were beercans and plastic bottles. As I moved off, I spied another bag of poo in the grass, another hung from a nail on the fence. More beercans were revealed at every turn, also polythene bags, food wrappers, and of course more little bags of poo.

For those of you not acquainted with this peculiar custom, the poo in question comes from dogs. It is painstakingly collected by their owners, and then hung up for all to see. The poo transcends your normal detritus, which seems scattered more in a careless way indicative of the Urbanian’s normal insensitivity for nature. The poo however is a definite statement, obviously, being all the more carefully arrayed so that it can only be taken as a banner, or a bowel churning war-cry:

“I have been,” it says. “And I shall come again.”

There it hangs, or lies, preserved in its entirety, and for eternity, more bags of poo accumulating week on week of course, until one cannot progress literally more than a few paces without finding yet another one. I have no wish to offend doggie people, am very fond of dogs, and know many responsible owners, but these bags of poo are offensive to a countryman. Human beings have a natural aversion to faecal matter, at least that issuing from the bowels of carnivores, including ourselves, and for the basic reason it is alive with pathogens, and can do us harm.

It must be said this is something of a recent phenomenon. In the long ago, dogs would dump in the open while owners looked blithely on. And there the said pile would steam and fester until the rains washed it away. This is now an offence, punishable by a hefty fine so dog owners must pick up their turds and take them home. It is not a task I would enjoy, speaking personally as a non dog owner, but owners do seem most diligent in this nowadays, placing the faecal matter ever so carefully in a bag, and I’m sure many do then take it home. However, obviously, as any walk around Rivington or indeed anywhere else in the countryside these days will tell you, many do not.

rivington village green

Rivington Village Green

I am at a loss to understand this quirk of human nature. Having done the really hard part, I mean handling it and bagging it, why then hang it up for all to see? Really, it makes no sense! Urbanians please explain! Is this a territorial thing? Are you really at war with us country folk? Cease, or we shall drive our herbivorous cows and sheep into your cities, and create perpetual gridlock!

A walk around Rivington, especially after the Easter Bank Holiday makes me wonder if others believe that care of the countryside is always someone else’s responsibility, that if we leave our beercans, our plastic paraphernalia, discarded underpants, brassieres, prophylactics, fast food cartons, shoes, nappies, and little bags of poo strewn about, someone else will tidy it all away. They won’t. Care of the countryside is everyone’s responsibility, so please take your litter, and your poo home.

Oh, it’s easy to rant, and I shall resist the urge, because there’s an inevitability about it. Such detritus is a natural tide, a line of flotsam that projects beyond the boundaries of Urbania, a high water mark to drown all in its path. To avoid it one must travel further afield than Rivington now. I accept it. I mourn it. It is lost to the greyness.

“What is greyness, please?” asks the passing Urbanian, dog bag at the ready.

It is a lack of colour, a lack of depth, mate. It is the subliminal life drained from nature, as it abuts the incoming tide, its roots shrinking as if at the advance of a glyphosphate spillage. It is in short that bag of dog poo you are for some mysterious reason hanging from a tree.

In response a committee is formed, and we put up a notice claiming the land as “Amenity”, as if its authoritative fonts alone will protect it. Then we put up prohibitive notices, which are themselves as ugly as the things they prohibit. Meanwhile we leave the litter to rot because you have to pay someone in man-hours to pick that up, and why bother when several tonnes more will be deposited as soon as the man goes home.

You can still find places unmarked by bags of poo, but they tend to be where the land is large and scary and the wind blows hard all winter. Only there my friend do Urbanians, and their doggies, fear to tread. I should add here in conclusion I do not mean to imply all town or city dwellers are Urbanians. You don’t have to live in the sticks be a countryman at heart. But remember to be a countryman you must leave no trace of your passing, and that includes taking your dog poo home.

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clapham cottages

Ingleborough is one of the loveliest of England’s mountains. The summit forms a large plateau which boasts the remains of an Iron Age fortress. At around 2400 feet, this must have been quite a place to retreat to. It would certainly have had the advantage of leaving your enemies breathless by the time they came within range of your arrows – unless of course, your assailants were a hardy breed, and certainly a lot hardier than I was the other weekend when I made an attempt on it.

No matter which way you approach, the walk up Ingleborough is always a delight, but my favourite route starts from the village of Clapham. Dales villages are magical places, unspoiled by tourism, to say nothing of the usual plague of millionaires seeking to snap up quaint, rustic abodes for the weekend – these are still places that are lived in. I noted more gift shops in the village this time than on my last visit, but there’s still something very homely about Clapham.

My photograph of the cottages is the best I managed to take that day because the weather higher up the dale was challenging to say the least, and the light very poor. I would have like a picture of the summit, but you’ll have to link to Wikipedia, because the summit was hardly photogenic that day.  Sheltered in the deep of the dale, following the course of Clapham beck, the wind roared overhead, teasing the bare trees, tugging at black winter branches, hinting at the challenge to come, but my first real sign of trouble came as I climbed through the narrow nick of Trow Gill – a feeling of bone-weariness, yet with the main part of the ascent still to go.

I paused at Gaping Gill to munch an uninspiring cheese butty while watching with a morbid fascination as Fell Beck, running high and roaring boisterously with lots of white water, simply vanished down that infamous little hole. Gaping Gill doesn’t look much from the surface, but as pots go, it’s stupendous – the stuff of nightmares, really – a hidden cavern about the size of a bathtub on the surface, but which opens out to the girth and the height of a Cathederal, below, and into which the beck tumbles and sprays out like rain, deep into the dark of the earth.

Gloomy thoughts on a cold day, shivery cold, about 3 degrees, and a wind that would be gusting sixty knots across the summit. And the mist was down to about 1000 feet. In another ten minutes, I’d be in the teeth of it then, and blind.

From Gaping Gill, the path rises with an unremitting steepness to the summit of Little Ingleborough, and the first hint of a mountain proper comes undefoot – shattered rock and a moonlike sterility. The ascent was tough – not enough slack in my springs to maintain balance against the gusting wind, and the rain, coming at me horizontally, managed to find its way with dispiriting ease through the taped seams of my walking jacket. I was bottomed out and struggling pitifully.

I’ve been in worse conditions, but not very often. I remember a wild bit of weather like this on the summit of Helvellyn. We had ice too, that day, though it was late March – men appearing out of the mist, their beards thick with ice, and weird dendrites growing out of the rocks, into the wind. And me, much younger then, untroubled, and perfectly balanced on slick rock, without the geriatric aid of poles or crampons.

Inglebborough was another matter, tackled at a point much later in life, when life has drained much of the energy from me, left me staggering in the face of its occasional brutality. I never tackle a mountain in one big chunk – not my style at all. Instead, I pick a series of objectives along the way, set my sights on the next one, and care nothing for what follows, until I’m ready for it. Thus, piece by piece, I make my way, and have thus explored most of my nation’s high ground, though many would think my approach timid. I apply the same method in much of my life, and my legs usually carry me through. But not this time. This time I was going to fail. Or worse, I was going to fall.

So,… Little Ingleborough, I told myself. And then we’ll see.

From the summit of Little Ingleborough, the path continues North, across a stony plateau, then breaches the fallen walls of the old encampment on the summit. It’s just a few hundred feet of ascent and much less than a mile away, but in strong winds, and with visibility down to only a few yards, it was looking too far. Leaning into the wind, I could feel it biting my ear. Then the wind would drop suddenly and I’d propel myself off the marked way, or it would gust a little higher and overbalance me in the other direction. A man’s life is nothing when the earth has its dander up like that. The best we can do is crawl, insect-like into the crevices, and wait for better weather.

On Little Ingleborough, I took the circumspect option and hunkered down a while in a depression, let the wind roar over my head while I caught my breath. But my weariness that day was coming from a deep place, like Gaping Gill, a thing of seemingly immeasurable depth, and one that could not be filled by any amount of ragged breathing. I did not quite crawl away, but made my way carefully, back bent, centre of gravity low, the last dregs of energy to set me on the downward route, where I let gravity do the rest.

Later on, I sat in a tearoom, in homely Clapham, dripping wet from outer shell to skin, and cold, still shivery, with chill-swollen hands wrapped around a scalding hot teacup. I’d not been up to it – not up to a lot of things these days. I’ve raided myself empty, hollowed myself out, so when the wind blows, I have not the strength to face it down any more, to maintain a proper balance. Mountains of the mind and, all that.

I’m regrouping now, getting my breath, building stronger legs, then I tell myself I’ll be back. Ingleborough smiles, not unpleasantly, promises sunshine next time, tells me not to hurry, that it’ll be waiting.

 

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