Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘driving’

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.

Read Full Post »

It was not the best day to be visiting Malham. There was a hill-run or something and every parking place was taken. Runners, brightly attired jogged off up the fells and officials with their hi-vis jackets and windmill arms directed traffic. Thus my humble plans for a walk around the fabled cove were scuppered for having nowhere to ditch the car.

Malham’s the sort of place you don’t arrive at in passing. It’s a long drive in, and a long drive out to anywhere else, so walking from another venue looked like it was off the menu as well. But the sun was shining, I was in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales on the first warm day of the year, and I had the top down on the little blue car, so there was no way this could be described as unfortunate. I simply needed a fresh plan for the day and I decided on a drive.

I know, I’d already driven about sixty miles to get to Malham, most of that along the arterial A59. But driving like that’s hardly a pleasure – more of an A to B kind of thing, and not altogether healthy in an open-topped car. I’ve seen the A59 from altitude during a winter-time inversion, the length of it overhung with a sickly brown haze, which is why nowadays I keep the top on as far as Gisburn.

No, what I meant was a different kind of drive.

I took the little road from Malham across the tops to Arncliffe. Initially tortuous as you climb from the village, the road settles to a smooth narrow ribbon snaking through a fine, scenic wilderness, one where roadside parking is prohibited. The narrow upland routes, and the little passes of the Yorkshire Dales provide some of the finest driving you can imagine – single track roads threading across spectacular dun coloured tops, bristling with limestone outcrops bright white in the sun. It’s almost a lost concept, the pleasure of a drive, I mean as our roads clog up and everything becomes urbanised as the built world squeezes out the green, and that brown haze spreads to overhang and poison more and more of everything.

Imagine if you can, simply enjoying the feel of a vehicle in motion, the white noise of tyres over rough tarmac, snicking up and down the gears to catch her on the hairpins, the sweet vibrato note of the exhaust echoing from drystone walls, then the sudden cut to silence as you rattle over the cattle grid and emerge into an open wilderness. And there’s the scent of it – clean air, hills, grasslands, rocks, running water.

It is a poetic experience, and you can still find it here.

The little blue car is an old MX5, with 85k on the clock, a cheap roadster, picked up second or third hand. We’re embarking on our fourth season together now, seasons of ease and smiles. The little road made me smile, the purr of the car as it took the hills made me smile, her tenacious grip on the bends made me smile, the sunlight glinting off Malham tarn made me smile, the deep, sublime cut of Yew Cogar Scar near Arncliffe made me smile. There was a lightness to my being as I drove, having quite forgotten I’d set out that morning with the intention of walking, and had failed.

I paused at Linton, sitting in warm sunshine on the banks of the Wharfe, by the falls. There I ate lunch, lingered by the ancient stepping stones, lulled into a meditative calm by the wash of the river. A guy was fly-fishing in the midst of a mirror-black pool where the river swings wide and into shade. Then I drove home,… and it struck me again, coming back once more to the roar of the arterial A59, the unwholesome, diesel stench of it, and the contrast with the peace and the unhindered clarity of the Dales. It emphasised at what dreadful cost the built world turns.

Along the urban byways and highways, everywhere we look we see the imposition of our thoughts in our shaping of the environment. There are attempts at beauty in architecture, but too often also a waste of graffitied despair, overhung by this brown haze as hope dissolves to premature corruption. Only where the A roads do not yet penetrate, where the way remains narrow, can we still squeeze through, slip back into an earlier time, and to an England where the land lies less marked, less troubled by our troubled thinking.

Read Full Post »

MX5 HortonIt’s my third summer now with the MX5, and with all due respect to those pop psychologists, I didn’t buy it because I was menopausal, even though I’m probably of an age that’s ripe for it. I bought it because I wanted one when I was seventeen and couldn’t afford the insurance. By the time I could afford it, I was married with kids, so a two seater sports car was impractical and I ran around for a quarter century in a family hatchback instead. Then the kids reached a stage when they wouldn’t be seen dead going out with me any more and suddenly that open topped sports car was on the cards again, and if you go for an old second hand one, neither are they particularly expensive.

But there’s nothing the media likes more than to gather a few pop psychologists and poke fun at all us silver foxes pretending to be teenagers. I mean, can’t we see how ridiculous we look? I suspect such articles are written by people in their twenties, who have no idea what it actually feels like to be a man in their fifties. Well, you know what? Being a man in your fifties feels just like being a man in your twenties, except in one or two significant respects which makes being in your fifties infinitely better.

Horton Church and PenyghentI took the MX5 to the Yorkshire Dales today, a round trip of about a hundred miles, drove it with the top down all the way, not in order to attract the admiring glances of women, but because there’s a greater sense of presence when you drive this way. The air feels good once you get off the highways and you appreciate the scenery more.

I took the car to the Dales because I wanted to climb Penyghent. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was in my twenties. I’d puff and wheeze my way up it back then, and I still puff and wheeze my way up it now. I’m not worried about advancing age, I’m not trying to prove anything, this is nothing about bucket-lists or raging at the setting of the sun. I took the car to the Dales, I did the hill, and I called for coffee on the way back. It was a great day out and I didn’t once feel self conscious or stupid.

The Mazda’s in the garage now cosseted under its dust sheet, and I’m in the summer house with a glass of wine and the laptop, thinking back over the day. There were plenty on the hill who were a good deal older than me, and they’re an inspiration in the sense that no one is too old for anything. Granted, I wouldn’t recommend climbing Penyghent in your eighties if you’ve never done a day’s walking before, but if you’ve been doing it all your life nothing’s going to stop you, is it?

I’m not saying the male menopause doesn’t exist, because it does, and a man must deal with it as best he can. But what the writers of pop articles about the male menopause overlook is that it’s no fun being young either. Being young has its own problems. True, you’ve more chance of attracting beautiful women and making love to them when you’re younger, but I seem to recall there was a downside to all of that as well, and one I definitely don’t miss.

penyghentOn my way up to the Dales, I stopped at some lights and a brand new Maserati pulled up beside me. It was growling like a tiger with bad guts. The driver wasn’t a silver fox, just a rich bastard with more money and ego than he knew what to do with. I could tell what was coming. When the lights changed that Maserati set off like a bat out of hell, the driver’s point being that his willy was bigger than mine. By the time I’d even snicked her into second, he was just a dot in the distance. His car was worth about £60K, mine about £900, not much of a contest, yet he still felt the need to establish his simian “superiority”.

It doesn’t take much of a psychologist to work out he’s got a considerable menopause waiting for him.

My MX5 is fourteen years old now, done 80K, still drives like new. The 1.6 litre engine isn’t particularly quick, but she’s gutsy on the hills. We attract a lot of bumper stick on BMWs and Mercs and Audis because they’re more powerful and go faster, and their drivers are rude and impatient and not a bit dim. She’s generally in good nick. Her back wings have had some work in the past, but they’re starting to bubble though again and she’ll need a bit of tidying up soon. Returning to her this afternoon after a couple of hours on the fells, I was glad to see her, glad to pull off my boots and settle into her, and I was looking forward to dropping the top and enjoying the sunshine on the drive home. In short she adds something to the day that those old family hatchbacks did not. It’s significant, I think, that I remember none of them with affection.

The menopause in males isn’t about hormonal changes, it’s about the dying of the light, the fear of death and the realisation of its proximity at time when we feel we’ve not yet begun to live, when we haven’t yet made a difference in the world. The ego cannot accept its impending annihilation and seeks as a last gasp some way of making its mark even if that risks killing us or making us look stupid. And the bigger the ego, the bigger the problem. There’s nothing surprising about this, no complex psychology, no thesis to be written. The risk is we’ll rage against it, or we’ll pretend we’re still in our twenties, that even as our hair greys, the sun will never set. Neither attitude is helpful, and neither are smart-arse psycho pop articles that miss the point entirely.

So if you’re a silver fox like me who missed out on that old MG when you were younger, don’t let societal jokes or pop psychologists get under your skin. Sure, you’re not in your twenties any more, but neither are you dead. If your kids have flown the nest and you can persuade the wife she’ll enjoy it, then go for it my friend. Stop thinking about how others see you; don’t live your life through their eyes. You are the eyes of the world as you see it, and it’s your purpose in life to go out and enjoy life as best you can, and if that means being a silver fox in an old MX5, then so be it.

Read Full Post »

Mazda under cover I take a breath, click the clicky thing and I say: “Radio?”

The car responds. Female voice. Mature. Slightly bossy. “Radio.”

“FM?”

“FM,… frequency please?…”

“Ninety three.”

Pause. The car computes, and then: “Not possible.”

I try again: “Radio?”

“Radio.”

“FM?”

“FM,… Frequency please?….”

Best 1950’s BBC accent now: “Ninety three.”

Pause,… “Tuning,…. Eighty three. Not possible.”

“What? No,… I said NINETY THREE,….”

Clearly this voice recognition thing has some way to go. It isn’t exactly one of the stand-out features of the Ford Focus. Instead, I fumble for the little preset button that takes me to 93 FM, and Radio 4.

Radio 4 annoys me these days, but everything else on the radio annoys me more. I prefer silence as I drive, but my commute is long and boring, and sometimes I like a companionable background babble for a change. We are half way through my commute, about 7:45, traffic at a standstill, sleety rain, just coming light. I’ve had the car a few days and we’re still getting to know one another.

Radio 4 is broadcasting a political interview. Both the politician and the interviewer have tones like cheese graters. Prickly. Abrasive. Adversarial. I don’t want to arrive at work already irritated, so better to turn the radio off, but – and lets be honest here – I don’t know how to turn the radio off.

It’s either this or Rock FM.

“Radio?”

“Radio.”

“Off.”

“Not recognised.”

The voices drone on. In the end I turn the volume down all the way. That will have to do for now.

The voice of the car makes me feel like a dimwit. I daresay I won’t be talking to it very much.

And I’m missing old Grumpy.

Grumpy is now living in Wales. I know this because his new owner rang last night to ask about the service book. I thought I’d left it in the car, but it turns out it’s still in my hall-table drawer. I don’t know how the new owner got my number. I didn’t sell Grumpy to him. I traded Grumpy in to the dealer for a pittance, because Grumpy needed work, and I hope they did the work before selling the car on. The dealer must have passed on my number which was naughty of them, but they’ve like as not already sold it round the world anyway, so it hardly matters. And the new owner seems pleased with Grumpy. I’m glad he’s found a good home. Ages since I was in Wales.

The Focus is a decent car and, in the main, looking pretty sound. The blurb extols the virtues of this new-fangled Ecoboost engine with twin clutch automatic transmission – claims I can get 40 mpg in mixed motoring. But 36.4 seems to be the limit so far, even driving with a feather touch, and I was getting that out of Grumpy without trying. And Grumpy had a bigger, older engine, and a dull old torque converter gearbox. One wonders at the fuss and blather. Still, the Focus is half the road tax of Grumpy, and that’s the equivalent of a couple of tyres.

I’ve not seen it properly yet in daylight. Not even sure of the colour – sort of blue-grey. I bought it in the pouring rain, and it’s been raining ever since, except on the few occasions when it’s been dark. That’s what it’s like. Wintertime. The commuter mule is mostly invisible. You go to it in the morning, demist it, brush away the snow, scrape the frost,.. whatever. Then it conveys you to the dayjob at an average speed of 22 miles per hour.

But it smells nice inside, smells of “new car”, a scent you can apparently buy, and which the dealer has clearly been very liberal with. It’s comfortable, quiet, plenty of poke when you want it,… and the dashboard lights up very prettily indeed. The transmission is strange – the odd bump and shuffle, but I think this is normal for a twin clutch auto. Yes, it’s fine. It’ll do.

But,…

It does not exactly make me smile.

I have another car, not for commuting. It spends much of the winter in the garage, gathering dust, avoiding the wet and the frost. What with one thing or another I’ve not been out in it for a couple of weeks. It’s my old Mazda MX5. It’s noisy, has a gearbox that takes an hour of running before it’s silky smooth; it has an engine as tight as a duck’s bottom unless you shamelessly thrash it. It smells of venting battery and damp, is brutally hard sprung, clatters over the bumps, rattles your teeth, and the rag-top is fraying,…

The rain stopped briefly on Sunday, and a winter sun peeped through just long enough to dry the roads. So I backed the Mazda out and took her for a spin to keep her limber. She warmed quickly and began to enjoy the road. Yes the Mazda enjoys the road. I know she does. I feel it in her bones. Smooth she’s not, quiet she’s not, but, oh,… what a joy that Mazda is to drive.

And yet,…

This morning the frost was layered thick upon the Focus while the Mazda slept in, snug beneath her blanket. It was a hard sheen of ice with jewelled drops, and a fine fuzz of dendritic growth on top, like a snowy fungus. It all was a glitter under a shivery clear skied dawn. Two clicks on the dashboard and the heated front and rear screens had the car ready to go in a minute. The ice capitulated.

“So,” says the Focus, “you want to go? Well come on then. Stop messing about. Quit blathering about the road-poetry of that flipping Mazda. Let’s go!”

The back roads were a sheen of black. The Mazda would have tested my nerves and risked a nose-dive into the ditch at the first bend. With the Focus I dared to test traction with a dab on the brakes. It responded with the sure footed grind of ABS, came crouching to a straight line stop. Safe as houses.

“Well, what did you expect?” it says. “High drama? Pirouettes?”

And then: “Listen,” it says, “What you get with me is the A to B. I’m about getting you there when getting there is what matters. That flighty little Mazda is about catching up all the bits you’ve missed inbetween, and only when the sun is shining.”

Makes sense at last. Respect. If I’m not careful I’ll be giving it a name.

Just waiting for one that sticks.

Read Full Post »

grumpy at grasmereDave’s presentation is slick, professional, official-looking, but also transparently sham, like Dave’s bling watch. First up the asking price for the Ford Focus Dave is selling is not the actual asking price. I must add £100 in order to cover “administration fees”. This, explains Dave, in a voice that now rings disappointingly dull with rote learning, is for peace of mind. It will yield indemnity against any outstanding finance on the car.

Excuse me? You mean there’s a possibility you may be selling a car that has outstanding finance owing, and to which I will be liable if I buy it? Dave fluffs his next lines, stumbles a little, moves on to another slide:

Unreliable things, cars. They are expensive to repair. Astronomical prices, are charged for every day things like clutches and brakes and cylinder heads. What I need is a warranty. But does the car not come with a warranty, Dave? Is the car likely to be so unreliable I will have need of it? Have you not checked it out in your extensice workshop facilities? Plugged it it into your main-dealer computer what’s-a-ma-gig?

The car comes with a basic and entirely useless three month warranty on engine and gearbox – things that are unlikely to be a problem on a three year old car. This does not inspire much confidence in me. No, what I need, says Dave, is a proper warranty, for which I must add another £500. I do not want this, and tell him so. I tell him I am not interested in any more “extras”.

By now the light is going, the sky clearing further to a cold cobalt. Meanwhile the cars inside the dealership shine beautifully. The sweet, squeaky clean scent of their tyres is exquisite. A sparkly-black Mustang rotates smoothly, soundlessly, on its plinth. This is the higher end of the motor business, and not without its allure. They don’t wear Trilby hats and sheepskin coats in here. They wear nice, business-like suits and learn their patter from highly trained sales-trainers, whose learning in turn is built upon the killer-psychology of Freud.

In a moment, and in spite of my discouragement, Dave will be urging me to have the paintwork of the car protected with a special, armoured gunk – protected against bugs and tree sap. Now, I’ve never had a problem with tree sap. I admit it can be a nuisance, leaving unsightly blobs on the car, but hot water and shampoo generally does the trick in getting rid of it. I wonder if car paint is not what it used to be – I mean if simple washing, or rain will nowadays dissolve it, without resort to this expensive protective coating clap-trap. Dave’s next slide does indeed warn against the perils of tree sap. Protecting against ice-cream on the seats is also, apparently, essential.

By now I have lost track of the extras, but estimate we’re up to about a seven hundred pounds. Do punters so routinely accept such an easy rack up, I wonder, that they should form part of the salesman’s daily patter? I suppose when paying by monthly instalments, on finance, it might not sound like much, an extra twenty quid a month or something, but I am an adherent of Grandma’s Stern Economic Principles – I save up for what I want, and pay cash. To me seven hundred pounds is seven hundred pounds. But punters like me, paying cash, are not that welcome in such high-bling places as this. Why should we be when with a finance deal we’ll pay thousands more for the same car, over the term of the agreement?

And still there is no word on the trade in value for the Astra. I have been at the dealership for an hour now. I’m growing a little tired, and couldn’t care less about the Ford Focus I once fancied any more, have no interest in taking it out for a test-drive as the light bleeds away and we approach rush hour. I am being flim-flammed, polished up for a mug, and I wonder if Dave knows that I know this. Certainly nothing in his patter suggests such a heightened degree of self-awareness. He jabbers on heroically, if still a little woodenly.

Finally, and as if by magic, the trade in value appears on Dave’s computer screen. The offer is £1000. But I have already ascertained from my trusty Autotrader App that £1650 is a fair minimum price. In all good conscience, I mentally deduct £300, knowing a repair on my car is necessary, but Dave and I are still some distance apart. I tell him his offer is too low. So Dave, who is my friend, and doing his best to protect my interests, sets out to tackle his boss again. This takes another ten minutes. More coffee is offered. Refused. The boss comes over.

This is an older guy, late fifties, jowly, crinkly-faced, dark suit, undertaker grey – a mark of his seniority. Certainly, he talks a higher level of tripe than his minion, and at the speed of an auctioneer, talks at me for what feels like an age. I can barely understand his diction – Shakespeare this is not – more Lear possibly, but I have no interest in it, am no longer listening. Instead, I nod politely, wonder if we are heading in the right direction, wish the jowly guy would cut to the quick, because by now I’m seriously wanting a wee. I almost miss the punch-line. Sorry, what was that? The deluge of rapid-fire tripe equates to an extra £50 on the trade in. Did he really think it was worth such an effort? An Oscar nomination perhaps, but £50, please! The insult is accepted, digested. This is business, remember, not personal.

The main-dealer experience is not without its interest, if you’ve the stamina for it – mainly in the observation of unusual human interaction, also the rather unsubtle and amusing psychology of flim-flamming. Perhaps I have become too unplugged over the years to respond normally to this sort of thing, and instead quietly record the absurdities of it in my mental notebook. It may reappear in a future story, whole or part, or maybe just the characters.

But by now I can no longer remember what the Ford Focus I briefly sat in looks or feels like, and I really don’t care. Indeed I feel like I’ve been in prison, subjected to an intense and craftily contrived interrogation. I will be happy if I never see another Fuc*%ng Ford Focus, or a squeaky dealership again.

I shake Dave by the hand, thank him for his time, because it’s business-like and the polite thing to do. Then I walk out into the early evening darkness and freedom. The sky is luminous, beautiful, streaked over by a single orange vapour trail, a planet sits low in the west, a steady white light. A star to guide me home.The Astra starts at the first touch, as it always does. There’s a clatter from the camshafts at low revs while we find our way out of the dealership, but I’m getting used to that now. She warms quickly and settles down to a familiar sedate hum as we motor home, and all without a single warning light on the dash.

In spite of its litany of faults, both past and present I’m feeling it’s still a nice car to drive, this 07 plate Vauxhall Astra, and may be worth hanging onto for a bit longer, even at a venerable 93,000 miles. I just need to bite the bullet and get it fixed. Again.

Never give your car a name. It makes it all the harder to part with.

Read Full Post »

malham cove

A short hop to Malham; M6, then the A59 to Gisburn where we slip across the border into God’s own county, then Hellifield, Otterburn, and finally Malham. Rain most of the way rendering pointless yesterday’s wash down and chamois finish. Pulling onto the carpark of the Buck the Mazda already looks like it’s been parked a week next to a concrete factory. However, the afternoon dries up sufficiently to take a stroll into the Cove. There are falcons soaring, and dippers exploring the beck, and there are men making ready to climb the seemingly impregnable face of the limestone precipice.

Then it’s back to the Buck for a doze on the four poster. I’m travelling with the Voyo, a 7″ Windows 8 tablet, made in China. It was cheap as chips, packs into a modest man-bag, but has the habit of randomly crashing. I use Jarte for my jottings, set autosave to once a minute and learn to live with surprises.

As I wait to go down to dinner I run through the early part of my new story, which I’m calling Carrickbar at the moment, or maybe the Queen of Carrickbar sounds better. The Voyo tips me out after a couple of paragraphs, and discards the changes because I mistook the one minute autosave option for the ten minute. I discover I can live with it. As writers we should never become too attached to anything we have written. What we think sounds just perfect, the moment before we are about to lose it, would rarely rest without change the next day.

malham cove 2It’s a tentative opening sketch, this first chapter, setting the scene and seeing what runs. Thus far it is rather a bleak story, one I’m not sure I can live with for the next couple of years in the writing of it, and I’ll be needing more of a reason to carry on. The characters are forming though, moving into the wings, looking to see if they can fit in, to see if they can help. Then there’s always that certain someone, the increasingly eccentric muse, and I suspect she’s waiting for us up at the Sea View Cafe.

The Mazda felt a little stiff on the run over, but that was me. I’m holding on to tension from somewhere and can’t seem to let it go, still fearful of the clutch failing. I need to lighten up; we have three hundred miles ahead of us, some tough hill climbing and some fast roads.

Dinner was lamb roast and very good too, no alcohol as I wanted a run out afterwards. The evening clears to sunshine and a straw coloured light, so I take the top down and drive the circuit up by Malham Tarn, then back down to the village. This is an exceptionally beautiful drive, both the Mazda and I relaxing at last into the curves of the road as if somehow enchanted. The Dales have never looked better to me than this evening. It is open and golden. I left my camera in my room at the Buck, but remind myself we are mistaken in believing we can somehow hold onto these things, that we can somehow capture them. But it’s impossible to capture them because the faculty of imagination is lacking in the photograph, present only in the nowness of the moment as we experience it. It is, I’m afraid something I cannot fully share with anyone.

Buck Inn MalhamI return to the carpark of the Buck and begin my usual nannying about, nervous of parking slots that are too narrow. The Mazda is getting on in years but miraculously preserved and my nightmare is that she will get side swiped by a carelessly opened door. I also avoid parking next to cars with kiddie seats – or worse the detritus that indicates the presence of older children. The alternative spot is under a pine tree, but that won’t do either as it is dripping sap and leaving sticky speckles on the screen and paint. In the end I settle for a tight spot and no evidence of kiddies. I really must learn to be more accepting of the risks; it’s bound to happen one day.

So, day one and a successful start. Some rain, but clearing to a beautiful evening. I retire to write:

He was a child when he last saw Carrickbar. That would have been ’67 or 68; he couldn’t say for sure exactly when but what Finn did remember was how the summer had glowed cosily that year in the orange of the sunsets, how it had blazed joyously in the yellow of the afternoon sands and shimmered with a delirious bliss in the perfect crayon blue of sea and sky. Remarkably though, he was not conscious of having carried this memory with him, and had indeed passed the whole of his life in ignorance of it. Until now.

Remarkably it was amid the ruin of forty years, he had fallen asleep, and had dreamed of Carrickbar. He had dreamed of the colour, and of the heat and of the wide smiling sea, and on waking the memories had risen from the depths perfectly preserved. It was as if the Gods had taken pity and cast him a line back into the living colour of the world, and in the morning all he could think of was a place he had not thought of since he was a boy.

But winter was not the best time to be seeing Carrickbar. Indeed it was to him, this afternoon, after a three hour drive, and through the murky lens of his road weariness, a cold, grey place, all the colour bled from it, frozen as his heart, pale as the ocean before him. And the ocean, he thought, as he gazed out at it, was just one more thing reflective of the lack of pity in the world. It was at this moment as if even his childhood had died and left him penniless, and the Gods were laughing.

It’s a start.

I think we’ll run with it.

Read Full Post »


I set out with no clear idea where I was going, but then the best journeys always begin like that. The forecast for the Lakes was unsettled, the Dales better, but a fuzzy, subliminal reasoning had me ignoring the Dales’ junction on the M6 and continuing north, so the Lakes it was, gathering gloom not withstanding.

I’ve had a mind to take the car over the over the Kirkstone Pass since last summer, and though the weather was a bit cool and glowery, I figured we might just about make it with the top down and my hat on. So, it looked like today was the day. I had walking gear in the boot, but my outings are as much about the drive these days, so if I did end up walking, it would be a route, like the drive, planned pretty much on the hoof.

The rain held off and I enjoyed a quiet run up from Windermere, gaining altitude as we climbed above Troutbeck. I had the road pretty much to myself, and every twist of it was felt pleasantly in the gut. Not everyone “gets” the small open top roadsters. The MX5 isn’t a powerful or a particularly aggressive car on the road, at least not the 1.6 version like mine. Any number of “hot” hatchbacks could, and often do, outpace it, but while the hot hatch pays homage to the hot headed god of speed, the MX5 pays homage to the more laid back goddess of the road. It is, above, all a very rewarding car to drive, delivering thrills at forty that other cars fail to do at seventy.

There was a pale, lazy mist creeping about the deep cut valleys and the tops. The Kirkstone was clear, ponderous clouds brushing a couple of hundred feet above the summit, so I only just managed to crest the pass in the clear. This can be a busy route; any later in the day than mid-morning and you’re sure to get stuck behind a dawdler or a tourist coach. You need to be careful though and watch your speed. Sheep have no road sense. (see video).

I did hit a sheep once. Neither of us stood a chance. We had a head on after someone chased it from their garden, where it had been snacking on their dahlias. It was quite a thump, one that sent it rolling ahead of the car – a big ball of wool, legs akimbo (it wasn’t funny at the time). The sheep got up, shook itself down, and shot me a pained look – a flower still hanging from the corner of its mouth, then ambled off, apparently unhurt. That was a lucky sheep, but I suspect only one of us learned the lesson of that day: expect the unexpected in sheep country.

At around fifteen hundred feet, the summit of the pass can be a bleak spot, locked in fog, but on a clear day it’s one of the most impressive places in the North – well worth a pulling over in the shadow of Red Screes and maybe taking refreshment at the inn if you fancy it. The inn makes this the highest permanently inhabited spot in England, also unusual for being completely off the grid. It relied for many years on diesel generators for its electricity, but has recently installed wind turbines as a greener option. That said, its comforts are still simple, not least of which is a roaring log fire. On a cold night that fire can make it a hard job to tear yourself away, especially when there’s a gale roaring through the chimney pots and you’re still a long way from home.

So, anyway… what now?

Well, the route leads down to Patterdale – the trip meter nudging just over 70 miles by this time, and plenty of options for walking on this side of the pass, but I’d not had enough of the road yet, so on a whim I carried on to the northern tip of Ullswater, then threaded my way along the lesser known eastern side of the lake. The roads here become suddenly narrow. I’d still no firm destination in mind, but I seemed to be heading for Martindale, if only because that’s where the road runs out. Martindale, for me, also means Andrew Wilson and the old Church of Saint Martins.

Lady of the Lake - Ullswater - 2004I usually visit Martindale via the steamer link from Glenridding which deposits you at Howtown. Then it’s a return on foot via various delightful routes across the fells. But it’s £7:00 to park your car for the day in Glenridding this summer, and nearly as much for the steamer fare. Its a good trip if you’ve not done it before, especially if you hit lucky and it’s the Lady of the Lake that takes you, but a drive round in an old open top car is just as precious and cost me nothing. What I saved would go some way towards the petrol and maybe treat myself to coffee and cake on the way home.

The day was working out just fine.

Beyond Howtown, the road becomes seriously narrow and there’s a series of hairpins that seem on the borderline of possible. They take you up from lake level and deliver you into the lost arcadia that is Martindale. My connection with the valley is quasi-spiritual, born of many a long walk in the silence and the solitude of the tops that embrace this remarkably beautiful place. It sees few visitors. There are no pubs, no shops – just a few dotted farms – a very small, isolated community indeed, yet one that boasts two churches.

Kaiser Willy is perhaps the most illustrious visitor to Martindale. He came in 1910 as a guest of the Earl of Lonsdale to shoot deer. I wonder if he knew then he would soon be shooting Englishmen. The lodge he stayed in is still there, preserved pretty much in its original, early twentieth century glory. You can rent it if you’ve a taste for the lonesome, and a penchant for interesting plumbing.

I’ve long been drawn by the Old Church of Saint Martins. The first time was on a sweltering day, a decade ago when I came across the grave of Andrew Wilson. Wilson was a Victorian journalist and traveller, son of John Wilson, a missionary and sinologist, and one of the founding fathers of Bombay. My first job then was to pay my respects to the man.

The grave of Andrew Wilson - MartindaleI’ve researched Wilson deeply over the years and find his story an interesting one. A genial, eccentric character, he was styling himself a Buddhist as early as 1858 – not an eastern Buddhist, but a peculiarly European one, schooled in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. What his father, a senior and respected member of Scotch Church, thought of that is lost to us, as are the reasons for Wilson’s conversion. What makes this all the more remarkable is he was in training as a minister himself, but had some sort of revelation to the contrary, traded in his divinity and became a talented if somewhat wayward journalist instead.

He was an enigma, an opinionated affable Scot whose banter had charmed fierce tribesmen beyond the borders of Empire. Fluent in Urdu, writer, poet, traveller, self driven to extraordinary feats, yet sadly also hamstrung by a congenital heart condition that would finish him off in cruel fashion at the age of 51.

Of course it’s in the way of things that people die and nobody who is not close to us cares that much except to say thank God that was not me. Life goes on and the past generations are forgotten. But still, there’s something about Wilson that stirs the blood, and I like to keep faith with him.

Coming out of the churchyard, I met a coterie of passing gentlepersons who were admiring my car and who asked, only half joking, if I wanted to sell it. I replied that I could never sell it, because I loved it too much. The car is a conversation starter, and I like that because I’ve always been shy of starting conversations myself. But as we joshed I was still thinking of Wilson, a man who lived a big and full life, exploring a world under steam and sail that I will likely never see even as a child of the jet age. Yet for all of his energy and wit and intellect, he is a man now forgotten, laid to rest in this lonely dale.

I was thinking too how the car would one day dissolve to rust or get bent in a shunt, and how everything I had ever done and seen and felt, will in similar fashion be lost – in the words of the not so immortal Roy from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – like tears in rain. Ephemera, impermanence, life’s meaning glimpsed in passing snatches, if at all, a meaning that must somehow be glimpsed through a screen of meaninglessness. It is the dilemma underlying our deepest emotions and fears; no matter what we’ve done nor what we’ve seen of life, we are essentially all of us nobodies going nowhere, and until we can make our peace with that, the doors to a greater insight will remain for ever closed.

in martindale
We are all dust. The scientist will try to cheer us up by saying, ah yes, but that dust was formed in the hearts of stars, but for me that only serves to make the material world seem all the more brutal and impersonal. The thing is to look beyond the dust, for there’s an essential part of us that’s not made of it.

I looked around at the fells. They were moaning, and not altogether welcoming but I’d come a long way and now it was time for a walk.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »