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Posts Tagged ‘ecology’

Oak tree, Peewit hall, Anglezarke

No two walks in the same territory, or even following the same route, are ever actually the same. It’s not necessary, therefore, to hanker after fresh ground all the time, though it is distinctly human to do so. I have walked this route up from Parson’s Bullough countless times, come over the pastures towards Twitch Hills and Jepsons, and passed beneath the two oaks that mark the line of the path to Peewit Hall.

I already know the photographs I’ll take, but though the physical perspectives are the same, there’s always a different mood by way of light and cloud. First shot then, the oak, looking towards Jepsons, with another oak on the skyline. The clouds are interesting today, but the camera will not capture them in one go. I suspect I can recover that dynamism though, using a particular software filter, and some artistic license. It comes out a bit gritty, a bit grungy, but I still like it.

For company, I have a wheatear. I think he’s a wheatear. I take a picture, then show it Google Lens, and it concurs. He’s flown in from Central Africa, where he spent the winter. I’ve never seen one before. He’s quite a dashing fellow, but doesn’t hang around to chat. I’m superstitious when it comes to birds. The lore is complex and tied up with personal stuff, but it’s a good omen for the day.

Wheatear, Anglezarke

I’m having fun with Google’s Lens app at the moment. When it first came out, I showed it my shoe. Its sophisticated, multi-billion dollar brain thought about it, then said it was a rabbit. Oh, how I laughed. But I’m not laughing now. Now I can point it at my shoe, and it will tell me where to buy another pair just like it. Or you can show it a picture of a bird or a wild flower, and it will tell you what it is.

We’re short of wild flowers today. The sheep have eaten everything, except, I note, the dandelions and the daisies. But I was in a scrap of woodland the other day and Google Lens put names to a greater diversity of flora. There were bluebells, mouse ear, red campion, garlic mustard (invasive alien), ramsons, lesser celandine, anemone and wood sorrel. I suppose at one time we would have learned these names from our countryman elders. But, apart from the more common weeds, I never did pick up the names of things, and am only now discovering the time, and the pleasure in doing so. Plus, countrymen elders are getting harder to find.

It seems a bit Victorian and reductionist, knowing the names of the bits of nature, like opening a watch and naming the components. But if it helps you find your way around the mechanism, you’re a good part of the way towards describing how it works. And how it works in my little scrap of woodland is that it supports a greater diversity of bugs. And then there are the things that feed on those bugs. Meanwhile, these pastures cover a hundred times the area, yet only sheep can thrive, and even then, they need the unremitting labours of man to keep them out of trouble. Nature does it all, it takes the whole impossibly complex diversity of the planet, in its stride.

It’s a beautiful prospect all the same, sterile though it is, this view from Peewit Hall – a small ruined farm – and my wheatear seems to like it too. Sometimes, though, we don’t understand what we’re looking at, even when we know what it’s called.

I’ve no idea where I’m going today, but the track to Lead Mines Clough is calling, and this takes us on to the ruins of Simms. There’s a Peak and Northern signpost here that lures you down into the bog. Sometimes the paths fall out of use, while the markers remain. This one’s number 260, dated 1997. The list of these robust and reassuring signposts is still growing. Signpost number one is of historical importance and dates to 1905. It lies between Hayfield and Glossop, and the cradle of the ramblers’ movement. It would be quite an achievement to visit, and photograph every one.

Peak and Northern Footpaths Society

There’s another oak of my acquaintance nearby, hanging on above Green Withins Brook. I’ve tried a few times to photograph it, but can never do it justice. Same today. I settle down with the camera, but my head’s elsewhere, and none of the shots are in focus. Sometimes we plunge into the details, and forget the basics.

I have read recently how consciousness is intentional. That means we are not aware of everything the senses throw at us, only what we focus on. And what we focus on is filtered by the psyche. But the psyche is not a machine. It’s fuzzy, and mysterious. Today I’m thinking “wild flowers” and “diversity”. Otherwise, I suppose I would not have spotted the tiny purple blooms hiding in the moss, here.

Google tells me this is heath milkwort, or polygala serpyllifolia. I feel very knowledgeable writing that down. The sheep must have missed it, and they don’t miss much. I must look out for more heath milkwort on future outings and hopefully impress someone with my countryphile’s knowledge.

We follow Green Withins Brook downstream, now, towards its confluence with the fledgling Yarrow. There’s a little waterfall here, another favourite photographic subject coming up, and I try a new angle on it: narrow aperture to get the depth of field, focus on the sky, let the ISO wander where it will, so long as it’s below four hundred. I’ve a good feeling about this one. Perhaps in monochrome with a slight sepia tint.

Small falls on Green Withins Brook, Anglezarke

Then we’re up the moor towards Old Rachels. There are oyster catchers here, piping shrill as they make their busy way over the moor. I always think of them as a maritime bird because the first time I saw them was on a beach, in the west of Scotland. They always have an exotic feel to them, though I suppose they are quite common, if you know where to look.

It’s a boggy stretch, this, and we’re testing the ground as we go. I used to carry a pole for this purpose, what I call a bog hopping stick, but seem to have fallen out of the habit. It’s a question of knowing the consistency of the ground – which areas will support a man in passing, and which will open up and swallow him, cap and all.

Sometimes the senses get muddled, and things work backwards. They end up telling us what the mind is expecting, whether it’s real or not. I’m thinking my boots are leaking, because sometimes they do. Sure enough, the feet feel wet as we come out of the bog, but when we check, the feet are dry. Then, even though we now know they’re dry, they still feel wet, all the way back to the car. Imagination is a funny thing.

Common Chaffinch

Another bird of omen greets us on return, settling on a branch and having a good look at us. He dodges about a bit, but we manage to get a shot, so we can show it to Google. Common Chaffinch, says Google, and I can almost hear it yawn. It’s such a know-it-all. But it does not tell me what a pretty little bird a chaffinch is, common or not, nor what it portends,…

for the journey home.

Thanks for listening.

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Green Withins Brook, Anglezarke

Today, I’m off over the Western Pennines, my usual haunts of Rivington and Anglezarke, a sort of willy-nilly ramble, just seeing where the mood takes me. It takes me up through Leverhulme’s terraced gardens, then along the rough old turnpike towards Will Narr. So far, so predictable, then.

I’ve got the camera, of course, but it’s a bright autumn morning, high in contrast, so it’s going to burn the highlights. To cope with that I need to shoot exposure brackets. And for that I’m going to need a tripod for stability, which I can never be bothered with. So I bump up the ISO up to 800, and keep my fingers crossed, snapping happily by hand as I go. The results aren’t great.

While we’re over this way, I check out a blocked footpath I reported to the council about six weeks ago. It’s still blocked. I wasn’t really expecting it to be cleared – councils are strapped; it was more that I wanted to be sure I’d not missed a way through, something that was perhaps just a little overgrown and easily remedied. But, no. The way is definitely blocked, by wire.

By chance, there’s this horsey lady, on the other side of the obstruction. Her lot – her and the other horsey folk, that is – are responsible for the obstruction. She’s surprised when my head pops up, looking for a way through, which is understandable, because not many people are likely to walk this way any more, on account of the impassable pathway. I’m trying to catch her eye to ask her if the path has been diverted, and where to, but she isn’t for engaging. She turns and walks away. I imagine she looks a little sheepish.

And speaking of sheep, later on, a sheep comes thundering towards me, on the moor. It’s being chased by a dog. The dog’s pretty much on it, a maniacal glint in its eye, when the pair of them whistle past me so close I can feel the draught off them. Like a fool I try to catch hold of the dog’s harness, but it’s going like a rocket and I don’t stand a chance. Had I managed to catch hold, it would have pulled my shoulder out, or had me over, and possibly torn a lump out of me as well – its blood being up that way. Sometimes, though, your instinct exceeds your abilities.

The owner appears, effing and jeffing like a proper boss, but, like the horsey lady, he doesn’t want to catch my eye. Indeed, it’s like I’m not there at all. But then he looks the sort who’d rip your ear off for sitting on his newspaper, so I’m content not to pass the time of day. The sheep has escaped by now, having led the dog, and now its master, into a bog. It’s standing on the dry side, watching, ready to bolt. It was a close shave, and I’m sure the sheep is shaken, but all the same, I can’t help thinking that was cunning.

It’s not the first time I’ve had a sheep come at me like that. The other time, it was being chased by a bullock, which frightened the life out of me as I could actually feel the ground shaking. So anyway, while the hills turn blue to the sound of the boss trying to catch his maladjusted mutt, by now up to his knees in bog, I head off, wondering if there’s something about sheep that we’ve overlooked.

A common feature of the British uplands, they’re credited in certain quarters as being one of the most destructive creatures known to man – at least when they’re farmed the way we farm them. Amongst other ecological catastrophes, according to the writer, George Monbiot, you’re likely to see more bird species in your back garden in five minutes than you will all day on a sheep farmed upland. This seems to be true from my own experience too. Also, much of the green baize, manicured nature of the Dales and the Lakes, which admittedly looks so attractive to us now, is, in ecological terms, better described as a monocultural disaster, wrought entirely by these woolly-backed ruminants, and the economics that drives our management of them.

But taken as a species, we underestimate the nous of the humble sheep. They’re clever enough to recognise faces, both human and sheep, and they’ve been known to defeat cattle grids by rolling over them on their backs. In certain tests of cognitive ability, they can outwit a chimp, and easily leave a dog standing. They have near 360 vision without turning their heads, and most remarkable of all, to me, is they can smell with their feet.

But how about this? You’re being chased by a predator. What’s the best way of throwing it off? Well, you could try veering close by an alternative source of prey, possibly one that’s slow-moving, and so an easier target, like, well a dozy human being. I’m speculating, of course, but it wouldn’t surprise me, given my experience in the wild, so to speak.

Anyway, further along, with the guy still shouting after his dog, I find the path has been settled by a herd of cows with calves. They’re pricking their ears at the commotion behind me, and checking me out with furtive glances to see if I’m anything to do with it. I make soothing noises, and they’re happy to let me pass without breaking their composure. But I wouldn’t like to risk negotiating these dun-coloured beauties with a dog as mad as that. On the lead, they’re likely to flatten the owner as well as the dog – both being tarred by the same brush as potential aggressors. Off the lead, the dog would either have to get the hell out of there, or be trampled to a pulp. A sheep has its nous, a cow has its collective, and its tonnage

In the end, the guy and the dog somehow survive the gauntlet of the cattle, but then it’s off the lead again. There’s a family picnicking at a pretty little spot, by the stream at Lead Mines Clough. Their placid pooch is mooching around beside them, but suddenly finds itself prey to the hound from hell, which comes barrelling at them like a torpedo. I can’t bear to listen to the yelping and screeching, so crank up the pace, put as much distance between me and the commotion as possible.

I’ve wondered about keeping a dog. I understand how a decent, placid little hound might be good company, but I guess I’m just not the type who could be troubled with licking one into shape. I’m more of a cat person, really, but I’m allergic, so don’t keep one of those either – or at least not any more. For me, the best company by far, on a day out, is a like-minded, fellow human being, or, failing that, just one’s own self, and a camera.

I manage only one picture I’m happy with. I took it at a pretty little spot by Green Withins Brook, near the source of the River Yarrow. It’s somewhat soft, because of that high ISO, but it’s inspired me to head back with a tripod sometime. Hopefully on that occasion I can avoid aggressive boss-men with their bonkers dogs, and the machinations of crafty sheep.

Really, they can smell with their feet.

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On the Parsons Bullough road

As I draw a glass of tap water to take to bed this evening, I’m glad it comes from the Lake District, or I might be giving it a miss. I spent the day in the West Pennines, around the Anglezarke reservoirs. The water from Anglezarke doesn’t supply my area but passes it by, on the way to serving Liverpool. There were people swimming in it, in spite of orders not to, and no doubt urinating while they were at it. And then, at the lonely head of Dean Black Brook, which serves the Anglezarke catchment system, and miles from anywhere, I’d chanced upon the bloated corpse of a disposable baby’s nappy.

It’s indicative of the times and of a people with not the sense to avoid fouling their own nests. It’s also metaphorical in a greater sense, of the degradation of the world’s ecosystems, due to the self-interest of ignorants. I’m sure such impurities are neutralized at the treatment works,… and the people of Liverpool can rest easy tonight. I’m still glad my water comes from the Lakes though.

Other than that, it was a good day on the moors. Okay, my timing wasn’t great: a good forecast coinciding with a release from the stay-at-home order. But I was relieved to be walking somewhere other than from my doorstep, so plans were laid and an early start intended. But then my good lady reminded me it was Holy Week.

“It’s what?”

“All the kids are off,” she clarified.

“Oh, shit,” I said.

I was pleasantly surprised then to be the only one parking up at Parson’s Bullough. It was brutally early though, and I was confident it would be a different story in a few hours, so best get moving. The West Pennines have always been popular, but they’ve been gaining visitor numbers, especially during the furlough period with people travelling in from well outside the area, in spite of various stay at home orders. The stress is really beginning to show. Plenty of other areas are suffering the same, virtue of a small country with few wilderness areas left, and a large, mostly urban population, for many of whom even the basics of the countryside code is an unknown concept.

My preferred route up Hurst Hill, via the Pikestones is off the usual ways, and still in good condition, but from Hurst Hill to the Round Loaf, and on to the intersection with the path coming off Great Hill, there’s clearly been a lot of traffic, including bikes which have no business there. The bikes are cutting deep wounds through the sphagnum and the sedge, so the peat bleeds out. And there’s litter, even in the remotest parts. That nappy at the headwaters of Dean Black Brook was a case in point. Full marks for getting so young a child up there, but could you not have taken its doings home?

The Pikestones – remains of a chambered burial mound

Anyway, having said that, I’d left my sit-mat at the Pikestones – I’ve lost a few like that – which is its own kind of littering I suppose, and I apologize for my gormlessness. If you find it, consider it a gift – it’s quite a comfy one. If you’d rather not, I’m sure I’ll be back up that way when the Easter madness is over to collect it.

From Great Hill, I took the long, lovely route over Spitlers and Redmond’s edge. This is moorland walking at its best, climbing to just shy of 1300 feet. The views east and west are always spectacular, but particularly gorgeous this morning in the de-saturated spring light – a clear blue sky over varying shades of khaki and russet, and all criss-crossed by tumbled down lines of drystone walling.

On Spitler’s Edge

In the olden days, this route was barely passable because of erosion, but conservation efforts have restored it, basically laying flagstones end to end, all the way to Will Narr. They focus the footsteps to a narrow, meandering line, bridging the peat hags, and sparing disturbance to vegetation and wildlife. There was a lot of traffic on this section today, it being a popular route up Great Hill from the Belmont road. Most of the groups I met were covid-polite, exchanging the usual courtesies. Others were less so, and there were loose dogs, some of them big and troublesome, whose owners seem not to understand every passing stranger doesn’t want to make friends with their animal.

I was once caught in a storm up this way – big hailstones driven horizontally like cannon fire in a gale force wind. My thoughts at the time were: I cannot possibly die in the West Pennines, it being home ground – Striding Edge maybe, or the Hall’s Fell ridge, there’d be some glory in that, but not here. I ducked for shelter into a timely peat hag, and waited it out.

There were more difficulties on the path around the Hempshaws ruins, a mixture of heavy rain, massed footfall and bikes again, where there should be no bikes. There are many ruined farms on the moors hereabouts, abandoned in the 1920’s and 30’s, their remains shelled for practice during the second world war. I think Higher Hempshaws is one of the most picturesque – an emotive ruin, and still a pair of gritstone windows to frame the moor. This was the main objective of the day, though a long way round to get at it, and I spent a bit of time there with lunch and photography.

Higher Hempshaws ruin

The route back was along the broad farm-track to Lead Mine’s clough. I remember being upset when they curt this through, in the 80’s as a service road for the plantations. But I’m glad for it now, as a fast and firm route across the moor. I met several people on it, skimpily attired in shorts and tee-shirts, while I ambled along in several layers and a hat. It had been cool up on the edges, but at this lower altitude the day was definitely warming.

“Can we get round to the top of Lead Mine’s Valley this way?

A map would have told them, told them also of the difficulties in undertaking such an expedition. But they didn’t have one.

“Em, well, you can take the path over Standing Stones Hill, and swing round to the west a bit, but it’s trackless and needs care.”

Looks clueless: “Which one’s Standing Stones Hill then?”

Points: “Em, that one. Rough going though. Really rough, and likely to be boggy.”

“Oh, we’ll be fine.”

The lady and her little dog looked done in. The guy would be carrying them both soon. An off-piste jaunt over tussock grass was not a good idea, but it was hardly my place to say so. I trust they’d the sense to turn back when the going got tough.

On my return, I could barely find the car. There were vehicles everywhere, youths cackling as they swigged lager, and there were people in wetsuits climbing out of the Yarrow Reservoir. The Yarrow is so deep, it gives me nightmares just thinking about it, and I swear there’s a dragon lives at the bottom.

Just your typical mid-week Holy Week in the West Pennines then? There was a time when it was only like this on Bank Holidays and you could more easily calculate to avoid them. Now it’s like this all the time. Still, I had a good walk, and a welcome change of scene, covered around seven miles and a thousand feet of ascent. But as always, the stress on the moors pains me. And of course it’s Easter weekend coming up, so they’ll soon be on fire again. It’s what we do. We foul our nest, and set fire to it, be it Anglezarke moor, or planet earth, instead of thinking: we really need to look after this, because it’s all we’ve got, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

On second thoughts, if you’re in Liverpool tonight, I’d get some beer in, and avoid the tap-water.

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wikimedia commons

It was a big, white fisher-bird, smaller than a heron. It was of a similar build to a heron, but more slender, more elegant. It was an egret, I think, the first I’ve seen in the wild and an incongruous sight, out among the potato fields. I’d go so far as to say it was exotic, and had the feel of an omen about it, meaning what, I don’t know,… but something, surely?

I’d come upon it suddenly, disturbed its fishing, and it had risen silently, gracefully from a deep drainage ditch between meadows. It’s not a well walked path, the path I was on. It meanders across the flats from Rufford, towards Croston. For a right of way, it’s hard to pick up and hard to navigate. As usual the way markings had gone, and it was years since I’d last walked it, so all memory of past trials had faded. You have to check the map to make sure you’re on the correct side of the ditches, or you’ll walk to a dead end, another broad ditch crossing your path. Then you’ll see your proper way on the other side, but with no way to cross and a long way to back-track.

I’ve jumped these ditches in the past, in desperation and frustration, but at times of flood, they run deep and wide and cold. They’re also steep sided, so you’d struggle to get out if you missed your step and slipped in. Anyway there’s no dignity in it. Dignity is finding your way by means of the proper way, the right of way. There are more convenient routes around here, routes that present no difficulty at all, but those are farm tracks signposted to tell you there’s no public way,… trespass and all that. Naturally the markings on those are hard to miss and tend not to disappear.

So, it was an egret, then. Swan-white, like an omen did I say? Well, maybe a blessing. Whatever, it was beautiful.

It had been a morning of contrasts. Clear and cold, the ground beginning to thaw a little, so it was firm underfoot, without being too hard. There was still a little snow lying about, and the flooded fields were sheets of ice, with a cold wind blowing off them.

I’d just come down from the cut of the River Douglas. It had dropped twenty feet from the weekend floods, stranding a thick line of unwholesome detritus, up on the banks. There were bottles, supermarket bags, footballs, tennis balls, all manner of glass and plastic, a line of rubbish stretched from Wigan, out to the Ribble, and from there to the sea, for the sea to wash it all back up on the beaches from Blackpool to the Hebrides. The supermarket bags of course would find their way into the bellies of whales, who mistake them for jelly-fish. There’s something sinister, I think, about this man-meddled stretch of the Douglas, something godless about it.

The land here, once marshland, is pretty much an open-air factory, cut up into squares, and navigated in straight lines, north-south, east-west. I’ve long found it aesthetically sterile, interest coming only sporadically in the occasional lone tree or in the skies at the day’s extremes. Lots of it has been turning back to wetland though, these past few winters, as the water-table rises.

An egret! Really? Are you sure?

I’d had the camera, but the wrong lens, and anyway, there was no time. The bird was up and off and out of range before I even thought of a photograph. I had a wide lens on, so that bird would have been a small white dot against the winter blue, indistinguishable from a seagull. Landscapes are more my speed. They give me time to fumble through the settings on the camera. It’s our fourth year together now, master and apprentice, the camera being the master, teaching me about the contemporary art of the possible. The single lens reflex cameras I grew up with from the 70’s onwards, were a much simpler affair, and easier to get along with. These modern digital versions are a bit daunting, with more options on them than I can learn in a lifetime. Fiddle with a few settings, and you’ve a whole new camera, and that’s even before you change the lens. But it’s an interest, and it gets me out.

Spot meter. That’s what I was experimenting with today. You measure the light from the brightest area of the frame, get that exposed right, so the details of it don’t burn out, but the rest gets under-exposed, which makes it go dark. It can be tinkered with on the computer to look a bit arty. Anyway, I’d shot a dozen pictures on the way round before noticing the focus was on manual, so they were all blurred. Too many things to control. Thirty shots, and all deleted when I got them on the big screen at home, except for two or three that made the cut.

The lone tree, above, shot into the sun was one. The frozen track was ablaze with reflected light. It was part intended and part good luck. I’ve photographed the same scene a dozen times in all seasons, and mostly it looks nothing like that, except this morning, it did, and for once the camera and I saw things the same way.

Then there was the weeping tree – beech or birch, I don’t know. That was an unusual find – easier to spot in winter when most other trees look dead. This one was dreaming though. It was by this tree I saw the egret, which added to the magic of that little spot – the Egret and the Dreaming Tree? Good title for a story.

Did I tell you how dreary I find it, around here, normally? Ten square miles of assorted vegetables and mud. But I have to admit, as I’ve been forced to look closer, this pandemic year, denied the distraction of broader adventures, it’s begun to open up a little, and share its secrets.

I’m wondering if the Environment Agency has stopped the pumps that drain the fields into the Douglas. Maybe that’s why the ditches are topped so frequently now, and the land turned to lakes. There were rumours of it some years back – austerity and all that. A guy once told me that if they ever stopped pumping, the giant mere you see on old maps of Lancashire would be back inside a decade. Sure, there’d be shortages of Lancashire potatoes and carrots if that happened, as a goodly portion of the crop looks to be ruined every year now anyway, but with the water, the birds are returning. And with everything else in a tailspin, that has to be a good sign, hasn’t it?

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Below the hill there stood an oak tree.
Beneath the oak there was a stone,
And the stone, it was an anchor
To hold the heavens down.

But then came the generations,
For whom the heavens grew dim.
Then came the man who built a house
And sealed himself within.

The house stood in a garden,
But the garden was too small,
So he burned the tree and broke the stone,
To extend his garden wall.

Then his pastures grew infertile,
As the sun-king lost his mind,
And the moon, she raised the wind and rain
And turned his lands to slime.

The heavens, they waited patiently,
Above the man’s bowed head,
But the stone was gone, the tree was burned
And the heavens? No, they could not return,
Until both man and house were gone,
And from the rested ground there grew,
From sleeping acorns, trees anew.

Then the sun king smiled,
And the moon his queen,
And blessed those men who quietly,
Raised back the stones from memories
Of when in former times we’d heard
The heavens whispering in our dreams.

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sky clouds building industry

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Once upon a time there was a King and his kin who ate and ate and ate, and when they’d stripped the kingdom bare with their eating, they made war on their neighbours and ate their land bare too. They felt they had no choice in this, that if they ever stopped eating – even for a moment – they would disappear, that only by eating more and more could they remain fully present in the world and meaningful, and their followers, the people, who also ate excessively, would still worship them. The strange thing was the more everyone ate, the sadder they became, and the King told them the reason for their sadness – though he’d no idea really – was because they had not yet eaten enough.

But when all the neighbours had been slain and the King and his kin and their followers had stripped the earth bare, all the way down to the shore of the sea, and when there was nothing left to eat, and even the fishes were choking on the King’s excrement, the King and his kin sat down in puzzlement. They were still hungry, and sad, and in their hunger they despaired and became grumpy with one another. And their followers, the people,  were confused and afraid, and hungry too – and as they grew hungry they grew angry there was nothing more to eat. After all had the King not told them it was their duty to eat as much as they could every day?

So the King and his kin turned their anger back on the people for questioning the wisdom of the King, and they sent the King’s army out to beat them until they bled, and while they were at it, to rob the people, to search their pockets for any last crumbs that might sustain the King and his kin. But the crumbs were few, for in truth the people had been hungry for a long time. So the King took to his bed and his kin, fearing the end of the world, sent for the wise man.

Now the wise man knew the King and his kin were foolish in their beliefs, and tyrannical in the lies they told the people, most of whom knew no better. But they were many and stubborn in their beliefs, because everyone had been eating for so long it was impossible for them to think of any other way to be.

“But you’re forgetting the stars,” he said to the King.

“The stars?” said the King. “What about the stars?”

“Everyone knows there are planets orbiting the stars,” said the wise man. “I shall build you rocket-ships to take you there. Just think of all those planets waiting to be exploited in the name of the King.”

This rather excited the King. “And all of us can go?” he said. “My kin too? I wouldn’t want to be without my kin, who tell me daily whatever I want to hear.”

“All of you,” said the wise man. “I insist.”

“And what about us?” said the followers of the King and his kin.

“All who wish to go and eat, shall go,” said the wise man. “But there’s a catch. These rocket-ships will use up the very last of our materials and our fuels on earth, and there will be no chance of ever returning.”

So the King and his kin looked around at the wasteland of the earth and they laughed, thinking this wouldn’t be a problem. So the wise man gathered the experts, who gathered the materials and the fuels and they built the rockets and fitted them out with the most wondrously luxurious state-rooms, and filled their larders with the very last of the fruits of the earth.

Of course, as is ever the way in human affairs, not everyone was able to find a berth on the rocket-ships. The old and the sick were decreed by the King and his kin unwelcome, as were the poor for fear they might bring bad odours and misfortune with them. But the wise man comforted those doomed to remain, and promised he would stay behind to look after them.

“You mean you’re not coming?” said the King.

“What need have you of me, your majesty,” said the wise man. “when each of your rocket-ships is equipped with the most artificially intelligent computer ever known to man?”

“Fair enough” said the King, who had perfect confidence in computers. He didn’t much like the wise man anyway, was always afraid he knew something the King didn’t. And with the wise man gone, the King’s wisdom was once more the last word.

So came the day and all the rocket-ships blasted off into the void of space, never to return, and the wise man watched them go and he bid them good riddance, knowing everyone aboard would be long dead before they’d crossed even a fraction of the distance to nearest star. And just as well for he would not have wished such an obscene  pestilence to be visited on another world.

Then he turned to the old and the sick and the poor, and he took from his pocket a bag of seeds and he said:

“We’d best plant these then, and try not eat so much next time.”

So the people planted the seeds, and in sharing the work of the tilling and watering and the harvesting, they realised they were happy, yet they had nothing and were still hungry. So they asked the wise man: “How come we’re so happy, when we’ve not yet eaten?”

“Perhaps,” said the wise man, “the greatest nourishment is that which we find in harmonious relationship with others.”

And so the old and the poor and weak and the sick all looked at one another and agreed they’d do well to remember that, and not eat so much in future. And as the earth slowly recovered and grew green once more, and the remaining shy creatures came from their burrows and multiplied, the people looked around at this new beginning.

And saw that it was good.

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hartsop barn

When he was writing his iconic guidebook series, Alfred Wainwright gave the region east of Ullswater, Patterdale and Kirkstone, the rather exotic title: the Far Eastern Fells. It has something of the romance of old Empire about it, suggesting a region both aloof and mysterious. For two years he explored it in his characteristically painstaking and solitary manner, finally penning the last full stop of this, his second volume, in the Autumn of 1956. On its completion, he said, he felt like a man who had just come home “from a long and lonely journey”, describing a land in which he had walked from morning till dusk without sight of other human beings. It’s not quite so lonely a place now, but still a good choice for anyone wanting to escape the queues on Striding Edge.

“They are for strong walkers,” these fells, he says, “and should please the solitary man of keen observation and imagination”.

far eastern fellsIn the 50’s this region was very difficult to get at, especially for anyone, like Wainwright, without a car, and that means most people. Overnight accommodation was sparse, still is, being mostly restricted to the Patterdale valley. He relied on bus services from Kendal, and wild-camps overnight. But over-nighting on the fells for Wainwright did not involve a tent, just a blanket and endless smokes until first-light. He walked in tweeds and hobnails, and his waterproof was a button-up plastic Mackintosh. Today’s mountain rescue teams would feel obliged to consider him mad and deliver a stern lecture, but his was a more rugged, unassuming, and self-reliant generation, one that brushed off hardship. It was thus, lightly attired, he explored every nook and cranny, and of an evening he would settle down at home with pen and ink and fashion for us entirely by hand these neatly intricate and fastidiously detailed guidebooks which, like no others, are a timeless love-song to the land of the lakes. They are also of course a lasting inspiration to the generations who have followed him up the English mountains.

As he wrote his guides he worried they would soon become dated beyond use, but many an experienced fell-walker still defers to them when planning an expedition. They provide a wealth of detail, all of it conveyed with great charm. For once though, I found Wainwright of little help. I was planning a walk over Satura Crag by way of Hayeswater, then on to Angle Tarn, but the crag only manages a footnote in book two, it being really neither here nor there, just a neat little crown of crags on the way from one much bigger place to the next. It’s more notable for the view than for the climb – as we shall see – but let’s pocket our Wainwright for company anyway, and off we go.

We begin in Patterdale, at the beautiful little hamlet of Hartsop. And it’s here, I read with some sadness the notice beseeching visitors to take their bags of dog-poo home. It seems the plague of bagged-and-scattered dog-poo has reached even Hartsop now! I have imagined the spread of a crass urban greyness in many ways over the years, contaminating the sublime green with something unwholesome, but discarded bags of poo were not anticipated, nor even imagined, yet they do sum up this socially degenerate phenomenon very well, both in its physical manifestation, but also metaphorically, and even spiritually.

The climb begins at once on an unrelentingly steep track by Hayewater Gill, which, after an hour or so, leads us to the somewhat troubling revelation that is Hayeswater, a post-glacial lake, nestling in a valley at nearly 1400 feet. Why troubling? Well, it’s hard to say, but I’m not the only one to have thought so:

ENFOLDED in the mountain’s naked arms,
Where noonday wears a drearier look than night,
And echo, like a shrinking anchorite,
Wanders unseen, and shadowy strange alarms

Visit the soul ; there sunshine rarely warms
The crags, but only random shafts of light
Flit, while the black squalls shrilling from the height
Shudder along the lake in scattering swarms.

Cradle of tempests, whence the whirlwind leaps
To scourge the billows, till they writhe and rear
Columns of hissing spray ; the wrinkled steeps

Scowl at the sullen moaning of the mere ;
And luminous against the dale-side drear,
Ghostlike, the rainstorm’s scanty vesture sweeps.

hayeswater

Hayeswater from Satura Crag

So wrote Alfred Hayes of it in 1895. And the watercolourist, Heaton Cooper, writing in 1960, agrees it can be rather a sombre place. Heaton Cooper also writes of an abundance of wildlife here but that seems nowadays lacking: deer and pine-martens and birds, including cormorants, fishing for the lake’s salmon. Indeed it has an altogether more barren look about it this morning – not even sheep. There are sketchy paths that trace its shore, but it’s not a place that invites closer acquaintance and I have never been tempted by it. So we avoid the “sullen moaning of the mere” and keep to the sunnier path that winds its way up by The Knott. Here at around 2000 feet, we encounter the path connecting with the Roman Way on Highstreet, and head north. Far below us now, Hayeswater still broods, while the southern sky thickens and dissolves the warm, cloudy-brightness of the morning into something altogether more gloomy. The Met office forecast rain for 15:00, and it looks like they’re going to be right.

I realise that, like most of my walks in the Lakes, I last did this route many years ago. I also remember it as being rather easier than it feels today. As we age, we trade our fitness for “experience”. Yet it’s experience that enables us to savour places such as these all the more and it’s unfortunate then it’s this lost fitness that’s required to carry us up here, thereby curtailing our opportunity for over-indulgence in the Lake country’s mystical delights. But such convolutions aren’t getting us any further along our path, are they Michael? On we go then, the hard work of ascent behind us now, so we can enjoy an undulating and entirely unambiguous path all the way to Satura Crag. From here, northwards we get a view of one of Lakeland’s most secret valleys: the seldom seen and ever so lonely Bannerdale.

It’s a mostly deserted place, just the one lone farm at Dale Head, a white sentinel against the green, and around the corner, at the opening of Rampsgill, there’s the historic hunting lodge, built in 1912 for a visit by our game-mad cousin, Kaiser Willy. The lodge is for hire. It boasts “interesting plumbing” and costs £1400 per week at peak. As a base for exploring this remote region, I can think of nowhere finer! However, I do admit to preferring my plumbing as boring as possible.

angletarn

Angle Tarn

Continuing our way, we come down to Angle Tarn for lunch, an altogether cheerier prospect than Hayeswater. Indeed Wainwright declared this to be one of the finest tarns in Lakeland. Even in gloomy weather, it never fails to make me smile. There is something truly heavenly about it, un-shadowed by soaring crag, it reflects the mood of the sky perfectly, speaking of which, as we settle by the shore, the sky darkens, and a wind stirs the surface to an animated silver.

I was probably twenty five when I first came this way, living at home with my mum, and just a rusty old Cortina to my name. Now I’ve got kids as old as I was then, my mum’s gone, and my whole life down there in the mad churn of the world is completely different, yet right now, and from this elevated perspective, I’m reassured a vital part of me remains the same, that there is little to separate that earlier walk from this one, for such is the magic of the fells, always stripping away the egoic delusions of who and what we think we are, and dismissing too the imaginary constraints of linear time.

The best walk is always the next one, and all walks are equally memorable, yet remembered in no particular order, so for a time, we are indeed ageless. Wordsworth wrote of this in more penetrating form in his “intimations of immortality”, that it is indeed possible to recover what we feel we have lost to time. But for that to mean anything to us personally, I think we need to have a spent a life-time wandering the high-ways, among these gaunt cathedrals and echoing amphitheatres, listening to, or rather feeling, what it is they have to say to us.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, its fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give,
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Thank you William.

But we’ve burst seventeen hundred words now, which puts us considerably to the north of verbose, so far as this particular medium goes, and here we are still, up by Angle Tarn, munching on a butty like we’ve not a care in the world. It’s also looking like the rain’s going to catch up with us any second. We don’t mind that, though we might give the Pikes a miss, and just shamble our way down to Boardale because, although we’ve only done about four miles so far, it feels more like eight, and we’ve another three back to the car which are going to feel like six. And maybe it’s time we bought a better pair of boots, maybe even a pair of Scarpas like our old ones. But it took us twenty years to wear those things out, and they still weren’t worn in by the time they fell apart, and have we even got another twenty years of blisters in us?

Sure we do.

A fish leaps, lands with a splosh and focuses down our attention to the mindful moment. Then the rain comes on, its “scanty vesture” advancing earnestly, across the fells, raises a hiss from the clear waters of the tarn. Hat’s off to the Met office; they forecast this five days ago, and they’re only half an hour out. How do they do that?

It’s a firm rain, but soft on the skin and warm. Then comes that rich scent from the earth, something fecund and exhilarating about it, like a fine malt whiskey. Sure, there are worse places to be than the Far Eastern Fells in June. Even in the rain.

Three miles still to the car, did you say?

They can wait.

Hartsop vire to threshthwaite

Hartsop

 

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