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alcock tarn 2The mountain tarns of the Lake District are as worthy an objective for a day’s hike as the mountaintops, particularly as we age and begin to linger longer in appreciation of their character. Once a curiosity glimpsed in passing en route for a lofty summit cairn, I now collect them in the same way I once bagged peaks. A mountain tarn is indeed a special place, bringing something of the sky down to the earth, mirroring the mood of both the day and the man.

Alcock tarn sits on a shelf above Butter Crags. Beyond it rises the massive grassy flank of Heron Pike, one of several summits on the Fairfield Horseshoe route. Look east from Grasmere and the tarn lies hidden, about half way up that wall of green, just above the highest reach of the pernicious bracken. On paper, it makes for a decent half-day’s walk, though somewhat steep, but all walks yield more on the ground than their paper promises, and so it is with Alcock tarn. At just over 1100 feet, it’s a modest enough climb, but I wouldn’t underestimate it.

My guide to the tarns of Lakeland is the water-colourist, William Heaton Cooper. He describes it as a modest and pleasant sheet of water, a mirror of the distant sky, as one looks southward towards the lowlands, Windermere and the sea. An experienced mountaineer, and native of Cumberland, Heaton Cooper would use this walk as an introduction to the fells for anyone new to him and whose “mountain form” was unknown.

I’m not sure what he would have made of me. My mountain form is best described as sluggish these days. Though I’m up a hill most weeks now, the ascent from the foot of Greenhead Ghyll was a “several stopper”, sometimes hands on knees, sometimes in full rest mode on sit mat and with binoculars drawn. My consolation lay in the knowledge that the fellsides here are uncommonly steep, and an ascent is always harder when walking alone.

The weather in the valleys was gloomy-hot, cloud base scraping 1500′, truncating the tops and trapping the heat to make a very steamy day. Humidity was 85%, so it was a very sweaty climb. A sleepy clag hugged the fellsides, ghost-horses drifting down. A light rain had me pulling on my new walking jacket, but its breathability soon proved to be disappointing; before I’d climbed a hundred feet I was wet from the inside out. And hot. Even the rain that day was warm.

The fells were silent, just the sound of my own breath on the ascent. I was thinking of my uncle as I climbed, a veteran of Dunkirk. Following the evacuation he spent the years up to 1945 training in the mountains around Fort William, with the Highland Light Infantry. By the time he embarked for Normandy, he told me he and his mates were like stags. Their mountain form must have been akin to superhuman, and a thing to be envied, though not of course the task that lay ahead of them.

I paused to rest below Butter Crags, once I’d cleared the thickest of the bracken. Bracken is a notorious habitat for sheep ticks, carriers of Lyme disease, and I’ve read they’re on the rise in the Lakes, but have yet to encounter any myself. The only problem I have with it is there’s nothing like pushing your way through its wet ferny fronds for soaking you to the skin. It also stinks at this time of year.

From there, the vale of Grasmere glowed without sun, something luminous in the mown meadows, far below, and which warmed an otherwise sleepy grey. I could see DunmaiI Raise, the steep climb of the ever busy A591 carrying tourists over the pass, on to Thirlmere and beyond. Dunmail was the last true native Celtic King. He met his end in a battle with the Saxons and the Scots in 945. Routed, his surviving clansmen rescued his crown and fled with it up the nick of Raise Beck and on to Grisedale tarn, where they hurled it beneath the dark waters for safe keeping.

King Dunmail rests in the huge pile of stones at the summit that bears his name, and by which there now flash thousands of careless cars every day. But once a year, the spirits of his clansmen return with the crown and bang on the cairn, wakening their sleeping King, and urging him to take up the crown once more. Each time he tells them the time has not yet come. Other more prosaic accounts have him dying on a pilgrimage in 975. I prefer the former myth which has something archetypal about it, like an Arthurian legend. But then the Celts  were always better story tellers than the Saxons.

I remember the climb to Grisedale tarn up Raise Beck. I did it in 1993, on a wild day in the company of friends. We went on to climb Helvellyn. The mountain was dark and angry, snow spiralling in a finger numbing, aggressive wind, and there was a feeling as we climbed, of coming to the world’s end. It was a Saturday afternoon, March 20th, the day the IRA bombed Warrington. I heard of it on the car radio, on the drive home. They had left two devices in rubbish bins on Bridge Street, a crowded shopping centre. The first device drove panicking survivors into the path of the second device. Fifty four were injured, two young boys killed. There were lots of bombings on the mainland throughout the course of the troubles, but that one was closest to home for me, and will be for ever associated with that climb up Raise Beck and onto an angry mountain.

It was an evil day.

The tragic overtones of Grizedale Tarn are carried on in the story of the Brother’s Parting Stone. It was here in 1800 William Wordsworth last said farewell to his brother, John. John was leaving Cumberland to take up command of a British East Indiaman, the Earl of Abergavenny, into which he had sunk his fortune. The vessel was lost off Portland Bill, and John drowned. Some say the event marked a steady decline in Wordsworth’s poetry.

But anyway, on to Alcock tarn!

It comes upon one suddenly, a pleasant sheet of water, as Heaton Cooper says, reedy at its northern end, and a mirror for a steely sky. Looking south along its length it forms an infinity pool, the great sliver ribbon of Windermere and the southern Lakes beyond. I’d seen not a soul all morning, but here I came upon pair already settled in with sketchbooks and watercolours. The mountains held their breath, the only sound was a lone duck dabbling in mud among the reeds at my feet. I fired off a rare haiku tweet to that effect but it felt cheap and shallow compared to the deeply patient deliberations of these two artists. All is not lost, I was thinking, that there are those still willing and able to take the time for al-fresco water-colouring.

I gave them space, waved to let them know I was harmless, then settled down to ponder over my notebook and a poem for which the muse had delivered the first two lines complete the night before, and left me to fill in the blanks. But the words would not come, and the silence was eventually broken by a party of talkers which put an end to my deliberations. They sat down not five yards from me, a flock of gassy old birds, treating me to a voluble warts and all expose of their various intimate lives and which sent the lone duck off in search of quieter waters. They had not seen me. My walking gear has morphed from fashionable fluorescence to unobtrusive greens over the years. With my hood pulled up, monk-like and sitting still in a little clutch of crags, I had apparently vanished, blurred out of the misty, muggy world, so that when I later rose to pack my things away, I gave one old bird a satisfying fright.

Sorry, dear, but I was there first.

Perfect as a circular walk, the route continues south, becoming quite airy on the descent, then fast losing itself in the densely forested glades above Town End, and the broad, well made tracks that lead you unerringly home. A couple of quiet hours up, then an hour down brings you back to the bustle of the many-peopled Wordswortharium.

I took coffee in the garden-centre cafe, and pondered the old Celtic legends. King Dunmail has been a long time dead now, and I wondered at the meaning of his clansmen keeping faith with him year on year. I wondered too what counsel he might offer in addition to his persistent procrastination as regards his throne. For me, I realised, while taking that break on the climb to Alcock tarn, he had pointed out the long lay-by beside the 591.

“Next time you come here, lad,” he said, “Get up a bit earlier. Park your car there in future, for free! And stop moaning about Broadgate Meadow!”

I shall.

It seems I have friends in high places!

alcock tarn

Alcock Tarn, Grasmere, Cumbria

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Grasmere

Grasmere

Grasmere boils in a soporific heat. The air weighs heavily on arms and legs, sapping will and thought. There are spy cameras on the Broadgate Meadow carpark now. They read number plates, and a computer is delegated the task of detecting dodgers. It’s £7, if you want to park your car for over four hours – a day’s walking. The sign says you can pay by debit/credit card – no need for all that loose change, which is as well because £7.00 worth of  change weighs a lot in your pocket. The machine will even text you when your ticket is about to expire, which is useful, but I note there is a surcharge for this service. There are plenty of spaces, but I don’t need one. My lady’s Corsa is on the hotel carpark where the sign says they will clamp you, charge you £25 to release you, and won’t do so until after 10:00 pm, so you’d better have a really good reason for being there. We do; we are guests.

My lady and I buy a £5 bottle of wine from the Cooperative store and sneak it up to the room rather than pay hotel prices. We sneak the empties out again in the morning, deposit them surreptitiously in the bin on the village green. We have difficulty accepting we are grown up enough not to be told off for such things. The hotel boasts four stars, and is expensive, but you only celebrate your silver wedding once. The food is mostly very good. The portions are small but very pretty on the plate, and flavoursome. You rise from the table gratified, but not uncomfortable. I do not rave over haute cuisine, often getting annoyed at those pompous celebrity chef programmes where they enthuse over mashed potato as if it were the answer to the middle east crisis. I am weakening to the aesthetics now, but not the price.

We walked around Grasmere lake, which is mostly road and busy, but flat, as suits my lady. There were disposable barbecues burned out and disposed of down by White Moss Common, little bags of dog poo and suspicious bits of brown smeared tissue under the bushes. It discouraged us from sitting down to picnic. This has always been a popular area, but the stress is showing, town-greyness seeping in. People smiled and said hello.

I stole a look at the Rock of Names up by the Dove Cottage visitor centre, but I thought it looked a touch jaded, though in retrospect this was probably my imagination, still suffering the assault of those bags of dog poo and bits of tissue. The light was difficult, so I did not bother with a photograph. We were not tempted to pay entrance to the visitor centre itself, which had ingeniously linked the work of Wordsworth with Matsuo Basho. I would not have made that link myself, but as I think of it, I see the connection in some of Wordsworth’s lines – he could be very Zen, though in the main far more wordy than the master of Haiku. Both poets walked immense distances, and used plain language. Basho is as revered in Japan as Wordsworth in the UK. There are many Japanese tourists still making pilgrimage to Grasmere.

Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount

As an attraction, I prefer Rydal Mount. Wordsworth spent most of his life there, but is more associated with Dove Cottage, his years in that place being reckoned by the literati to have been his best, poetically speaking. But one has only to visit Rydal Mount to intuit this house must have given him by far the greater joy and comfort. There is not the room to swing a cat at Dove Cottage and only one room with any decent light at all. Rydal Mount, by contrast, is flooded with it.

St Oswalds church in Grasmere has installed musical bells now. At certain hours we are treated to a few verses of a hymn. At 10:00 am we have “Morning is broken”, at 4:00 pm we have “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended” which my lady dislikes as she says it is for funerals. “To Thine be the Glory” is at 2:00 pm which is more jolly. I have visited Wordsworth’s grave twice, the second occasion to look for Hartley, eldest son of STC, and who is located just behind the Wordsworth family. While there I was able to point out to fellow visitors the correct Wordsworth, as there are a lot of them in the cemetery and it can be confusing. I used to struggle as well, but the clue is he died in 1850. To his left is beloved brother John, to his right, beloved daughter Dora. To John’s left, beloved sister, the ever enigmatic Dorothy.

The musical strikes remind us this is a Christian, Anglican, sacred place as well as a tourist attraction. There’s a lot of nature mysticism in Wordsworth’s poetry, but the bells also remind us he sang hymns with gusto. On a busy day in Grasmere, with tourists spilling from the pavements, it’s hard to imagine anything like a profound, spiritual stillness, but if you sit a while in pew at St Oswald’s, you will find it.

At Rydal Mount there is a copy of Wordsworth’s letter declining the poet laureateship on account of his advancing years. It is very beautifully worded. We do not write like that any more. Friend Robert Peel – the PM – assured him nothing would be required of him in return, so Wordsworth accepted.

I have the impression, mostly subliminal, I owe a lot to my reading of this man’s life and work – though his life be tending now towards myth. His work is like the Dao De Jing, meaning nothing without the ears to hear, except for Daffodils – but I think that was more Dorothy’s bidding, and beautiful in a different kind of way. I hear him more clearly now than I used to do, but still have a long way to go. I find it easier to read his poems in a plain north country accent. I don’t know Shakespeare at all, find him inaccessible by comparison, but I understand this is my own ignorance talking.

By coincidence fellow blogger Bottledworder posts an excerpt from Intimations of Immortality which I pick up via the hotel’s free wi fi.

Dinner here costs £38 per person. Coffee is extra. I do not aspire to a lifestyle where such things can be taken for granted. Wordsworth made nothing as a poet. The Prelude was published posthumously to little applause. Only now is it respected. Again, a north country accent helps in the reading of it.

£5.00 for two coffee’s in the garden centre, but the staff were friendly, unlike their trip advisor review which accused them of being surly – which only goes to show, one must treat all publicly voiced opinion with circumspection, to whit:

In my current work in progress, the protagonist, Timothy Magowan, a jaded teacher of English literature, and tweedy man of middle years, has nothing good to say about Grasmere. I have been known to say unkind things about it myself, so it’s something of a turn-up to be temporarily resident again. I dislike the cost of things and the apparent disdain in which the tourist is held, whilst being simultaneously milked as a cashcow, but I’m willing to make an effort if Grasmere can prove itself to be more accommodating, meet me half way. But then we do not see the world – including Grasmere – as it is, but only as we are.

The weather is set to cool by midweek, with the promise of a light, refreshing rain. I may venture up to Alcock Tarn, seek company among the skylarks.

So, to finish, Wordsworth and Basho,… on the Skylark!

ETHEREAL minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?
Or while the wings aspire, are heart and eye
Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?
Thy nest which thou canst drop into at will,
Those quivering wings composed, that music still!

To the last point of vision, and beyond
Mount, daring warbler!—that love-prompted strain
—’Twixt thee and thine a never-failing bond—
Thrills not the less the bosom of the plain:
Yet might’st thou seem, proud privilege! to sing
All independent of the leafy Spring.

Leave to the nightingale her shady wood;
A privacy of glorious light is thine,
Whence thou dost pour upon the world a flood
Of harmony, with instinct more divine;
Type of the wise, who soar, but never roam—
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home.

William Wordsworth – 1770-1850

Above the moor,
not attached to anything,
a skylark singing.

Matsuo Basho 1644-1694

The contrast is breathtaking!

Matsuo Basho.jpg

Matsuo Basho

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Twitter Blog Birds

I’ve been tweeting again. I thought I’d given up on this years ago. I’d noticed my tweets had started looking like glimpses of a darker world than I really believed in. Reading them, there was a sense of falling off the edge, a lot of bleating on about the price of petrol, road tax and the unreliability of my car, which I’d Christened “old grumpy”.

Old grumpy had become a proxy for my perceived trials and tribulations in a world that was forever breaking down. In my tweets I read the story of a man caught between a rock and a hard place, facing the obliteration of his future economic security to say nothing of the ruin of his dreams, and whether any of that was true or not, in the end I just I didn’t like the sound of my own voice any more, so I shut up.

A few of my tweets however, seemed to capture something else, something more enduring and more faithful to the kind of vision I once saw reflected in the world, a vision that had become clouded by the darker stuff, and my path lost. They might not have meant anything to anyone else, but they managed to puncture the hard shell of my day to day, and let bleed out a flavour of something much sweeter, something I could still taste. So I let them be, and deleted all the rest.

Of course there’s something of the Haiku about the Tweet – this is the ancient short-form Japanese poetic style, associated with Zen. Its matsuo basholimit on the means of creative expression forces you to say more with less, and right now, for me, I think that’s important:

Above the moor, not attached to anything, a skylark singing.

(Matsuo Basho 1644-1694)

Ten words, descriptive of a moment, and a profound insight.

We can’t all be Matsuo Basho, but if we choose our words carefully, we can achieve a resonance of sorts, allowing the universe to take over and tell its own story, one that swells from the seed we provide. It’s hard of course, getting those words right, setting up that initial resonance, but well worth meditating upon and of course very satisfying when you pull it off. Our bell may not ring as loud and clear as Basho’s, but we still know it when we hear it.

In the sad old pre-internet days of chasing magazine publication, I was always up against a word limit. Back then Ireland’s Own, a  traditional Irish family magazine, was kind enough to take some of my stuff on a fairly regular basis, so I found myself coming up with all sorts of story ideas and having to tell them in about 2000 words. That’s not easy. It teaches you efficiency with words and style, but also ways of saying things, not just with words but also with the words you leave out – like Ernest Hemingway’s famously ingenious six word short story: For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

When you begin writing, your worry is being able to write enough to meet the target. The problem goes back to our schooldays and having to come up with two thousand word essays on topics that don’t inspire us much. But once you find your muse and she’s set you alight, you realise the danger then is in writing too much, while paradoxically saying too little of what you, or your muse, really mean. You wonder how you can ever twist and chop and trim your tale into so measly an allowance of column inches as the commercial magazine allows.

dovetails imageMy story “Dovetails” is indicative of the kind of thing I was writing for Ireland’s Own, though by the time I’d finished it, I’d been seduced by sci fi and fantasy magazines like Interzone and The Third Alternative. They allowed me to bend my world into more speculative realms, and explore them within a limit of up to 6500 words. But is more any better?

None of those 6500 word stories were ever published, and you’ll find them all on Feedbooks now for free. Likewise, the self published novels – which allow me a theoretically unlimited number of words to tell my tales. Lately though, I’ve begun to wonder about the novel. Is there a danger in writing 100,000 words yet paradoxically saying nothing at all?

Can we say, or see, or feel much more, with less?

For now, I’m back to tweeting, back to feeling the moments in time, and attempting to express them in 140 characters. This is not to say I’ll be wasting characters bleating on about the price of petrol again, or the annual shock of road tax for old grumpy, because these are not momentary glimpses of satori. They’re more the dull bludgeon of the unreal world that can so easily waylay us. They are the chatter in our monkey-minds when we are trying to meditate.

So.

Evil grey-green dawn. Cold rain falls in stair-rods, snow-spits inbetween. An old car at blurry lights. Prefers this kind of weather.

Slightly sinister, but that was how I saw it “in the moment” this morning.

And, on a cosier note:

Light leaks early now to winter’s night. Psyche turns inward as Luna passes full. Home, a haven of soft light, old books, and bed.

 

Goodnight all.

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