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Posts Tagged ‘darwen moor’

The falls on Stepback Brook

It’s a beautiful, mid-September morning. We reverse the little blue car from the garage, and let the top warm in the sun. It folds down easier when it’s warm, and I’m trying to spare it from further cracking. It’s a little frayed around the edges now, and not surprising at twenty years old, but still keeping the water out, so I’m in no hurry to replace it. We fold it back gently, flip the baffle plate, to keep the wind from sneaking up behind our backs, and make ready for the off. Every warm day from now is a bonus, and possibly the last we can get out with the top down, and enjoy the air.

I’ve wasted half the morning trying to load music onto my phone because I want to avoid the radio, but it’s a new phone and I can’t make head nor tail of it, so we’ll make do with the company of our thoughts as we drive instead. It’s a short run today, over the moors to the Royal, at Ryal Fold. It’s cool on the road, but pleasantly so with the heater on just a touch. Of the ongoing national mourning, there’s not much in evidence en-route, a few pubs with flags at half-mast. It’s a different story in the Capital, of course, with all-night queues for the lying in state, and extra trains for the influx of tourists.

The King meanwhile courts an occasional bad press for being grumpy. This is from both the political left and right, and both the royalist and the republican media. Memes are spreading across the Internet, some humorous, some spiteful. This seems to hint at the nature of the future relationship. Meanwhile, dissenters are being arrested. Even holding up a blank piece of paper will get you nabbed.

One broadcaster mistakes a crowd protesting the killing of a young black man by the Met, believing them instead to be well-wishers. It must be difficult trying to keep the commentary up for so long, when not everyone is following the same script.

Anyway, the car park at the Royal is busy, lots of people sitting out in the sunshine, enjoying an early lunch, but the Union Jacks are absent. There is an intoxicating scent of cooking and coffee, mingled with the moorland air. The plan is a circular walk to Darwen Tower, as I have it on reliable authority it is definitely open now after its years’ long refurbishment.

We follow the route up Stepback Brook to Lyon’s Den. There’s been rain recently, and the brook is musical, the little wayside fall running nicely, a generous and shapely mare’s tail. So we sneak down into the dell and try a shot or two, but we’re shooting into the sun, and the lens is flaring awkwardly. We’ll be lucky to salvage anything from it, but no one’s counting, and it’s always fun trying. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the day, and to be out in it, and looking at it the right way round.

Eighteen months retired now, and I’m still not sure if I can call it real, not sure if I’m making the best use of the time I’ve been waiting for so long to enjoy. I’m still aware of time ticking down, but now the deadline is not the Devil dragging me back to work on Mondays. It’s something more final, numbered perhaps in summers, and it needs to be overcome, for the sense of pressing time is the Devil itself.

Climbing the track to Lyon’s Den, we spy a note pinned to the fence. Someone is expressing thanks to the kind soul who found their photographs (we presume on a memory card, or something). We sometimes don’t appreciate how much stuff we have on these things, that their loss would be devastating to us. It is a random act of kindness, then, and a reciprocal gesture of appreciation. The finder gains nothing, materially, seeks no reward. It was a rationally meaningless act, then, yet also the act of any decent human being.

Lunch is served on the bench by the little copse above Lyon’s Den. The view from here is breathtaking. The cooler air of these September days cuts the haze, and jacks the clarity dial up to infinity. The Dales are so clear, it’s as if we could walk to them in five minute, the Cumbrian Mountains, too. Closer to hand is Bowland and Pendle, barely a stone’s throw.

An old timer comes ambling slowly by, trailing a pair of ancient Irish Wolf Hounds. They have the scent of my lunch, and are curious. He’s a pleasant soul, bids me good morning, gently tugs his giant creatures onwards, in the direction of the tower. There’s an air of ease, of gentleness to the day. The tower stands out, way across the moor, a Dan Dare rocket-ship, poised for take-off.

Darwen Tower – Yorkshire Dales beyond

So, a random act of kindness – finding a memory card in the mud, and placing it where the owner might find it, should they come looking. The simple goodness of that act has extended beyond returning those treasured photographs to a grateful owner. It has coloured the morning like a charm. It ripples out in time and space.

I have spent a long time on the trail of something “other”. Those more well travelled say it’s a journey that ends with the realisation there is no “other”. I think I know what that means, now. It grants a certain degree of shape to the cosmos that makes more sense, though it actually has no shape, beyond what we grant it, that subject and object are the same thing.

But the journey is like a long breathing in. And if you hold your breath long enough you get to the point of bliss, and it seems many travellers make do with that, sit on their cushions with their scented candles, and their singing bowls, lost in the emptiness. But you need to breathe out too, and that means bringing something back into the world, a world where there’s so much suffering it’s almost impossible to get anything done, and where nothing makes sense without these random acts of kindness.

But like the breathing in, we make a meal of it, and it turns out to be much simpler if we can only look at things the right way. I’m hoping it’s the same breathing out, breathing something back into the world, that it’s no more than a question of doing the good that you know, as it arises. But it’s a good that must come from an intelligence of the heart, which in turn comes from that journey to the realisation there is no other.

The finder of those photographs felt their loss, because it was they who lost them, they who also felt the joy of their return. I know I’m not making much sense, but it doesn’t matter. The message is in this mellow air, and in the ripples coming out from that little note, the lost, the found, and the random act of kindness.

Darwen Tower

We arrive at the tower to find it is indeed open, and looking in fine fettle after its long refurbishment. I venture inside a little way, take the spiral staircase to the lower balcony. The sun is very bright now and, entering the gloom, I find my old eyes are slow to adapt to the dark these days, so I’m fumbling for the steps with my toes. I’d get there eventually, but don’t feel confident in climbing to the top. The lower balcony will do, and in itself is a stupendous viewpoint.

There are two stories about the origins of the tower. One is that it was built to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria. But there is another story, one about land ownership, and the public’s rights of access to it. Once upon a time, I would not have been able to walk, as I’ve walked today. It would have been an insane trespass, and I would have been seen off by gamekeepers in the employ of an absentee landlord. But it was courageous acts of trespass, defiance, and an ensuing legal battle that opened the ways over Darwen Moor to everyone, and that’s what the tower celebrates. The intelligence of the heart says it was a good thing, securing freedoms we continue to enjoy today. But that is not to say our freedoms cannot once again be lost.

Darwen Moor

Thanks for listening.

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Cartridge Hill, Darwen Moor

Another walk on the Darwen moors, this time taking in Lyons Den, Cartridge Hill and Hollinshead Hall

We’re standing by this small ruin on Darwen Moor. It’s a low, mossy, grass covered mound, and hard to tell if we’re looking at stone or brick underneath. We’re near the head of Stepback Brook. Lower down its steep, rocky course, is where we found the enchanting little waterfall, last time, but which is today reduced to a disappointing trickle. We’ve come up from Ryal Fold in deep shade, over a frost hardened earth, and in the teeth of a bitter wind that severely tested our resolve. Now, though, we’ve popped out into dazzling sunlight, with a bit of warmth in it, so the way is slightly more encouraging.

This is Lyons Den. I was expecting more, but perhaps less is more. I imagine it’s a fine spot in summer, with the moors dusty, under the heat of a noonday sun, and these trees providing shade for the traveller and a whisper of stories as the wind stirs their leaves, and the brook tinkles its way down the valley. Today though, even in the sun, it looks and feels rather bleak.

According to legend, it was a man called John Lyon who gave the place its name. This would be around the last decade of the eighteenth century. He lived here, not in any ordinary dwelling, but in a crude shelter made of turf. A shaggy, giant of a man, he was seen to emerge from his rustic lair on all fours, the Lyon emerging from his den, so to speak, and the name stuck with the locals, or so the legend goes. He gets a paragraph in Shaw’s 1889 book, “Darwen and its people”, which is the most definitive account I have of this enigmatic character. The place was sold on in the nineteenth century, and became the more conventional, small farm we see on the early OS maps.

Lyons Den, Darwen Moor

The maps also suggest it was less of a lonely place then. There were mines and quarries all around, and we can imagine the sound of men toiling at, and in, the earth, and the sound of carts creaking over the rutted moorland ways, with their loads. A profusion of Victorian shafts dot the moor, ominous depressions by the wayside, and caution is required. Some are fenced, others not. Shafts weren’t always securely filled from the bottom up, and that curious depression in the earth might easily conceal a rotting cap of planks, with a terrifying void lurking beneath.

The plan for the day is to take in the top of Cartridge Hill, then walk down to the woods at Roddlesworth, to the ruins of Hollinshead Hall, then circle back to the car at Ryal Fold. I’m not feeling on top form, so we’ll have to see how it goes. I have what looks like an infected tick bite on my foot, which itches like blazes. It’s been keeping me awake, so I’m tired and lacking energy. Either that or it’s the start of Lymes’. I’ve tested negative, so I know it’s not Covid.

I didn’t get to show it to the doctor, who remains elusive. I had to send the surgery a photograph instead, and the practice nurse rang me back to say it looked more like ringworm, that I need an antifungal ointment. I hope she’s right. Neither Lymes’ nor Covid are attractive alternatives, though of the two, I’d sooner take my chances with Covid.

Perhaps that’s why the moor feels strange today, empty somehow. Or it could be a bitterness over the recent party-gate revelations. I had thought I’d risen above all the polarising politics of recent years, but am occasionally brought back to the boil by its craven lunacy. Today, I’m remembering how the cops came down really hard on ordinary folk for infringement of the social distancing rules, how we were encouraged to dob our neighbours in, how lone walkers were spied upon by cop-drones, and shamed for being out of doors, “admiring the view”, like it was the new sin. It’s all proving a bit hard to swallow.

Anyway, Lyons Den is at the junction with the track coming up from Duckenshaw Clough, and which winds its way down to Hollinshead. We follow it westwards a short way, locate the path that cuts back to Cartridge Hill, then follow the line of a fence over open moor to the summit. Although an understated hill, as a viewpoint it’s outstanding, and well worth a visit. Southwards, there’s Belmont and Winter Hill. To the east, it’s the Holcombe moors. Westwards, it’s Great Hill and Anglezarke. We have a faint inversion in the valleys today, which we try to capture with the camera, but the cold soon nibbles at the fingers and has them aching for our pockets again.

I have an irrational thing about ticks. They’re a metaphor of something I can’t pin down. It’s nature, no longer welcoming, but turned predatory. If that thing on my foot is a tick bite, it can only have come from this neck of the woods, where ticks are unheard of, and it’s the middle of winter, for heaven’s sake, when ticks aren’t active. But then we have climate change, mild winters, and a burgeoning wild deer population,… I don’t know. Perhaps it’s an age thing, but there’s this sense of change, and all of it careening downhill to nothing good.

In roddlesworth woods

We retrace our steps back to the main track, then wander down to the woods at Roddlesworth. Here we seek out the extensive, and fascinating ruins of Hollinshead hall. Flattened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I’ve always found it curious that the well house remains so stubbornly intact. It’s the setting for a very fine ghost story, whose origins are the eerie memoir of Richard Robinson, of Brinscall, also known as “a moorland lad”. Out of print now, I found a pdf copy of it, titled “The Wishing Well” on the website of the Chorley and District Archaeological society, and a very good read it is too, as well as being of significant historical interest.

The Well House, by the ruins of Hollinshead Hall.

Lunch today is lentil soup, which we enjoy in the sunshine, sheltered from the wind, in the lee of a wall, whose original function we can only speculate about. Kitchen? Lounge? Study? In the seventeenth century, the hall was home to the Radcliffe family, of Royalist leanings in the civil war. There’s speculation the well house was used as a secret baptistry, the Radcliffes being of the Catholic faith, at a time when priests were being murdered by the state, and the Vatican was having to smuggle them in through Ireland. But my favourite story of Hollinshead Hall – also told by Richard Robinson in his memoir – comes from the eighteenth century, when it passed to one Lawrence Brock-Hollinshead. Brock-Hollinshead installed a special circular room, here, as part of an experiment concerning time, and determining the exact length of a calendar year. This was prior to Britain’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar, in 1752.

Britain was still relying on the less accurate Julian calendar, in spite of the rest of Europe, by that time, having changed, the result being we were 11 days behind everyone else. The experiments involved timing the sun as it shone through a series of apertures, over a period of six years. Brock-Hollinshead’s studies proved Pope Gregory was right about the precise length of the year, and the new calendar was duly adopted. This meant catching up the 11 lost days, which gave rise to riots, people believing they had been robbed of life. And on that note, given also the febrility of the present day, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn there were moves to abolish it, and have our pre Gregorian exceptionalism restored!

Hollinshead Hall 1846 – Cartridge hill in the background

So, down through the mossy woods now, to the bridge over Rocky Brook. The sun is slanting nicely through the trees, but I’m not in the mood to linger. I’m definitely feeling off, and wanting a sit down, somewhere comfy and warm, with a large mug of hot chocolate. The little blue car is up at the Royal, and it’s a bit of a pull out of the woods from here. We’ll see how we go. Itchy feet for sure, though, today, which of course could also be read as a metaphor which bodes well, for the coming year.

Thanks for listening.

References:

Image of Hollinshead Hall in 1846, reworked from a public domain print, acknowledgement www.albion-prints.com

“Darwen and its People” J.G. Shaw 1889

The wishing Well – a moorland romance. A Moorland Lad – Richard Robinson 1954

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darwen towerExploring duality on Darwen Moor

I drove up to the Royal Arms at Tockholes today and stretched my legs on Darwen Moor. My ancestors were weavers and mill-workers in this area, and would have been intimately acquainted with the ancient byways that criss cross these rather bleak hills. How can I describe Darwen Moor? Technically it’s an upland plateau, though more poetically I can’t help thinking of it as a dour blend of gritstone, peat and heather – black as a hag’s teeth in winter. And there’s a tower.

I needed the air. And I needed my ancestors.

A dull daily commute, followed by pastimes that center upon the contemplation of one’s navel can lead to some very insulated ways of thinking, particularly when we start probing the nature of reality. Many an unfortunate hippy has passed this way, picked up on the Buddhist idea of “Maya”, misinterpreted it, and concluded that the world we think of as real is just an illusion, that attachment to it is the biggest delusion we can fall foul of, and that the more valid experience is a total retreat into an imaginary inner world, aided, if necessary, by powerful hallucinogens.

But we need to be careful.

Personally, I prefer the notion that having a keen and clear-headed handle on the ways of the physical world is far from delusional, if only because our mortal contract insists we spend so much time learning the ropes here in the first place. I like the Daoist view which describes us as being caught with our feet in both camps, that we exist partially both in the inner and the outer world, and that we can’t make sense of either without paying due attention to both.

So, it does you good to get out once in a while, to climb the muddy trails up into the clouds, far above the towns and cities, if for no other reason than to remind yourself of your mortal nature by the feel of the wind on your face. If I had a more thrill-seeking personality I’d probably take up skydiving or base-jumping. As it is a walk in the hills is usually sufficient to re-calibrate and ground my sense of reality.

frozen pathTemperatures have been getting down to below freezing here and the visitor center carpark at the Royal Arms was slick with ice. As I picked up the trail, I found the ground hard with frost and the paths, normally glutinous mud and stagnant pools of water, were rendered difficult with long stretches like rivers of ice. My instep crampons would have been useful, but I’d left them at home because this is only Darwen Moor after all, not Helvellyn, though the winter weather has been known to kill people up here. I decided to chance it anyway, trusting to luck there’d be enough clear stretches to get me to the tower and back without breaking a leg. I find walking boots are useless in conditions like this, hard soled and slippery as hell, needing the addition of steel spikes to bite. The fell runners were faring far better in their soft soled trainers. I cringed at the sight of their bare legs. It was cold. Biting cold.

path to darwen towerAs I walked, I was thinking about a passage in the story I’m currently writing. The heroine, Adrienne, has survived a near fatal car accident that’s left her haunted, not least by a classic near death experience – tunnel of light, meeting dead relatives and all that. The hero, Phil, is a survivor of a different kind of accident – a helicopter crash at sea that left him traumatized  having been tossed in a rubber boat for three days in a storm, thinking he was going to drown. He suffered hallucinations towards the end, and ever since has experienced lucid dreams and an uncanny intuition apparently guided by imaginary conversations with his great great grandfather. (Don’t ask me where I get this stuff from)

Anyway, when these two meet, their chatter inevitably circles around the meaning and the nature of reality as they try to make sense of their experiences, as well as dealing with the psychological damage from which they’re still both still suffering. At one point, Phil is wondering if they’re not both actually dead, that neither of them in fact survived their accidents, and that what they think is real life is actually some kind of strange mutual lucid dream experience, or a kind of purgatory. And how would they know otherwise? But Adrienne isn’t impressed and retorts that she knows what “dead” feels like,…

“and it’s a whole lot better than this, Phil. No, this feels pretty much like being alive to me.”

So,…

Ice on the ascent. You slip – best case, you bruise your gluteus maximus. Worst, you go over a crag and break your neck. But crags are few on Darwen Moor, and the way is relatively easy, plus they’re a hardy lot round here and I had plenty of company on the way up, most of them moving faster than me – not just hardy walker types, but rosy cheeked families out for a bit of a blow. I seemed to be testing every step, or paused fiddling with my camera, while my overtakers tramped gleefully on, passing me with a neighbourly “Ow do.” Maybe I should get out more. Maybe I should should swap my shamefully underused Brashers for a pair of cheap soft soled boots from the discount store, and simply learn to walk again?

It’s not a long hike to the tower from the Royal Arms, only a couple of miles, and well worth it. It’s one of the most impressive follies in the district, built in 1898, and a magnet for generations of walkers. Unlike many such structures these days, it isn’t fenced off and boarded up. You can still climb up it, and in spite of being in one of the bleakest spots in the West Pennines, it shoulders the weather well. With a little TLC over the years, it’s maintained its structural integrity, and bourne the occasional insults of vandals good naturedly. From inside, via a spiral stone staircase, you can access a mid level viewing balcony. If you’ve the nerve for it, you can press on to the top. The stone stairway ends just short of the top where you then climb a short section of iron spiral steps, to emerge through a doorway in the upper, glazed, pergola-like dome. This gives access to the upper turret, raised some eighty feet above the moor. The views from here are breathtaking, but I’m no good with exposed heights and usually need a braver companion to goad me into making the ascent.

darwen tower turretThe tower has lost its glazed dome twice, once in 1947 in a gale, and again more recently in 2010. The latest impressive replacement was built by a local engineering company and was lowered gingerly into place by helicopter back in January this year.

Ostensibly built to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, the tower also celebrates the victory of local people who regained their rights of access to the ancient trails hereabouts, and which had been blocked by the absentee landlord who was more concerned with rearing grouse for the guns of the monied classes. It was an unfortunate fact that much of the British uplands were once denied to the local population until the mass-trespass movements began the long process of winning those uplands back. The most famous of these was on Derbyshire’s Kinder Scout in 1932, but it all began here over Darwen in the 1890’s. It’s a sad fact however that access wasn’t enshrined in law until the Countryside and Rights of Way act in 2000, over a hundred years later. The moral is you don’t need to be a sage to appreciate the restorative nature of the uplands. Spend your working week doing 12 hours shifts on a loom down in a smokey town and you’ll appreciate it well enough.

I didn’t climb the tower today. I was feeling a bit done in to be honest, plus the light was going and there was sleet in the air. And, all right, I’m chicken.

Fear – rational or otherwise – and conflict, also the wind biting your nose, and the ever present risk of a slip, of physical injury. Yes,… like Adrienne says: Feels pretty much like being alive to me.

Yet I know the Buddhists have a point about Maya. I glimpsed it once in a brief moment of staggering awareness – that at a certain level of perception what we see and experience in the world is a mental construct, that there’s no difference between who we think we are, and what we see in the world. We are indeed “that“. But adopting this philosophical stance doesn’t make things any easier for us at the operating level of reality. We have no choice but to go with the world as we see and feel it, being bound by physical rules that restrict our ability to mentally manipulate our realities, rules that render us fragile in a world that can seem brutally impassive, rules that mean when we trap our finger in the car door, it hurts, and when we find ourselves on an ice-bound trail in the British uplands, we’re going to have to watch our step.

But this kind of thinking raises a paradox that haunts me: If I am what I’m looking at, then who are you? Since there’s nothing special about me, you must also be what you’re looking at, and if we’re both looking at the same thing, then at some unimaginable level we are the same, you and I.

I’m afraid my rather dull abilities as a philosopher won’t carry me beyond this point – how we can be both separate and unique expressions of spirit, yet also be the same. How can I look at the world, and at the same time construct it, yet do so in such a way that it makes perfect sense to you, as your world makes sense to me? There are many expressions of philosophical duality but this one beats the hell out of me. So I find myself slithering over the moors on contemplative walks, admiring the views, taking photographs and occasionally talking to myself.

Still, it’s better than fretting about the gas bill, or the price of petrol.

I made it back from the tower without incident, the only downside to the day being that the visitor center cafe was closing, and I didn’t get my bacon butty.

Damn.

Goodnight all.

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