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Posts Tagged ‘lancashire’

great hill dec 2014 sm

Great Hill – Western Pennines – UK

I take the path by Dean Brook,
Follow in my father’s footsteps.
Fifty summers gone, he led the way,
But there’s no trace of him now,
Beyond imagination.

The moors lay quiet in a steamy heat,
Exhale soft scent of ferns and earth.
Narrow here, the path,
Above a deepening
Water rushed ravine,
There’s a leg twisting tangle of heather,
And all the tricky snares
Of grass.

Hesitant of foot.
I fear more to fall
Than I did back then,
Cock-sure-footed
And safe in the cradle,
Of my father’s imagined
Immortality.

Now I fear the void of empty air,
And the cold embrace of peaty scum,
Then to be denied deliverance,
From the drowning pools,
For lack of saviour.

Today, the journey speaks
Of emptiness
Among sheep ruined hills.
And rising now to pulled down farms,
Hungry ghosts whisper tales
Of grinding lives, eked out
And gone,
Names unknown,
Scattered by the wind as leaves,
All dried and scratching brittle,
In soured dust.

And on top of Great Hill,
There is litter.

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mazzy at glasson 2019

Small blue car, Glasson Basin

It was unseasonably warm, this, the last Friday of February, temperatures nudging seventeen degrees and a spring tide almost cutting off the village of Glasson. The little blue car and I are here again for our annual groundhog day. I first came in 2014, but that morning was a cold day, a winter’s day, and there was ice on the car park. Today was summery, balmy and weird. There have been years when I didn’t get the top down until April. That’s natural, today wasn’t.

I’m dressed for winter, five sensible layers and a hat. I have binoculars, camera and a Lion Bar. The plan is the same as always: walk south across boggy meadows to Cockerham Marsh, then pick up the Lancashire coastal way which leads us back to Glasson, then a brew before we paste it back home.

I’m not feeling too good, a bit of a cold breaking, so my head is woolly and there’s a fatigue hanging over me, but I’ll manage. Yes, the weather is weird, and I’m tying my coat around my waist before we’ve gone a mile, but the warmth in it is undeniably cheering. A few weeks ago we had snow.

marsh end farm

Bank End, Cockerham

Cockerham Marsh never fails to impress, one of Lancashire’s jewels – the glittering expanse of it, the greenness and the dendritic channels all patiently fished and swooped over by oystercatcher and curlew. There were murmurations of dunlin and starling too, animating a sky lit generously by a low winter sun, and with all the warmth of spring in it. I’m thrilled by the rapture of birds here as they wade and gambol out of reach of man. As I watch I find myself wondering if, when we’ve poisoned ourselves from the last corners of the planet, the birds will find a way to survive and preserve in themselves what is truly beautiful about the world.

And then it’s the coastal path and the green sward by the old abbey where the land stops and tumbles sedately into the sea, then the call of lambs in sheep-thick meadows, and the final push up a summer-sleepy Marsh Lane to Glasson. All of this in February.

lancashire coastal way

The Lancashire Coastal way, Cockerham

I get a brew at the Lock Keeper’s Rest, by Glasson Basin, settle on a bench in the sun, among the born-again bikers. I’m joined by an old dude who tells me it’s a shame they closed the pub. He speaks with the direct intimacy of an old friend. He’s just lonely for a chat, I suppose. He goes on to complain about the salt water he’s had to drive through on the way into Glasson, as if it’s someone’s fault, and how it’s no good for a car. Then it’s the price of a pint and a football ticket, his opinion amply expressed by a weary shake of the head. I ask him how long since they closed the pub, not that I’m interested, but it looks like he’s settling in and thus far it’s been a bit one-way. He seems not to understand the question, bites his lip and looks at me askance, as if I’ve offended him and he bumbles off to sit alone.

On the drive home there’s a near accident on the humped bridge over the canal at Garstang, a learner driver is approaching it cautiously, but then caught unawares by an insane hardcore wagon which appears suddenly, rising like Poseidon from the deep and steaming over the bridge at full tilt. The wagon screeches to a halt, inches from disaster, sends up a cloud of dust and is unable to move unless the learner reverses, but the learner is frozen with shock, as am I.

The hardcore driver is not a patient sort and is effing and blinding at once. The passenger gets out, the learner hastily slides over. The hardcore man continues to sully the air with foul and insulting language: You can’t drive, you’re an idiot, you shouldn’t be on the road – that sort of thing.

“Learning, mate,” says the passenger, hands wide, in a placatory tone, then points out the L plates. You know? Cut us some slack. Be patient.

But the hardcore man takes this as a challenge to his superiority. The cab door is flung open, and a tense standoff ensues. The queue for the bridge is dozens of vehicles deep in both directions by now, but we must all await the pleasure of the hardcore troll, captive audience to his vile strutting. Does he commit assault on an innocent man? mangle his car for good measure and expect us all to applaud him? The learner car backs up as quickly as possible in order to avoid fisticuffs. The hardcore man, still puffed up hurls parting curses, then thunders away to wreak havoc elsewhere.

I follow the L plate into Garstang, thinking to myself the learner will probably never want to get behind the wheel of a car again, scarred for life by an ill timed encounter with the troll. A troubling day of sorts then, mostly beautiful, but in a weird sort of way, overlaid by something surreal, courtesy of my being under the weather, and there’s an aftertaste of threat that’s been hard to shake – the un-seasonal weather suggestive of climate catastrophe, and the latter incident indicative of an increasing and vociferous intolerance among our people.

The principal threat to the natural world of course has always been the human being which seems incapable of acting in harmony with it, while the biggest existential threat to the human being, apart from an asteroid impact, has always been human beings themselves, and their propensity to act first in preservation of their own misguided sense of superiority, to the detriment of more altruistic virtues.

Anyway, mind how you go and beware of those thundering hardcore wagons.

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canal parbold_edited

The Leeds-Liverpool canal at Parbold, Lancs.

I was out along the canal yesterday with my camera. There were the usual canal-side scenes: houseboats moored-up, ropes taut, cosy curls of smoke rising from squat chimneys. There was a bridge, a windmill, an old canal-side pub, and a low, wintry sun scattering yellow stars across mud coloured water. It was late afternoon with a clear, pale sky, but little energy in it, and it was cold. I took around twenty shots, but none came out the way I saw them. They lacked detail, seemed flat, with a compressed range of tones. Indeed, I might have done as well with my phone – and my phone’s not great.

This tells me two things, both probably true: One, I’ve still a way to go before I learn how to handle that camera properly and, two, my imagination tends to overpaint a scene in ways a camera can never capture, that when we see the world as human beings, we are seeing it through more than just the eyes. There is also an inner vision we project, a thing comprising the warp of imagination and the weave of emotion, like a net we overlay upon the world – and it’s this that breathes life into our experience.

Still, I tell myself the lens was sluggish, that it might be fine in a part of the world with an abundance of light, say in the tropics, but on a winter’s day in Lancashire, even wide open at F3.5, it’s going to struggle, that my pictures will always be as flat and muddy as the canal’s water. So I’ve coppered up, and ordered another camera, second hand this time, but with a much faster lens, indeed the finest of lenses, a Leica lens. I’m thinking that if I can only let in more light, I can get closer to things the way I see them.

It won’t work of course. I already have several decent cameras and another one isn’t going to change anything because what I’m chasing here are ghosts. Only rarely do people photograph ghosts, and when they do, it’s likely the result is faked, like my header picture was faked in Photoshop to bring out the light and the detail to some resemblance of how I remembered it.

And there’s another problem. Take a look on Instagram, or Flikr, and you’ll see great volumes of images that already depict the world in powerful ways, volumes that are being added to every second of the day. I’ve been taking pictures nearly my whole life, yet probably only captured a few scenes that are a match for any of the millions of beautiful images that exist already. Do I really imagine, when I put a picture up on Instagram I will make the world hold its breath, even for a moment?

No. And this isn’t really about others anyway.

What I’m seeking is a reflection of myself in an abstraction of shape and colour and light. I look at the sizzling detail in the finest photographs of yesteryear and wish I could render my world as crisply alive as that. Lenses hand-ground a hundred years ago seem, in the right circumstances, and in the right hands, to far surpass anything I can approach with the most modern cameras of today. I want to get down to the very atoms of creation, you see? I want to focus them sharply and with a depth of field that stretches from the tip of my nose to the edge of the universe. Why? Well, given enough accurate information, perhaps I’ll be capable of understanding the puzzle of creation, or at least my own part in it.

I know, I have a tendency to over-romanticise.

It was a quest that began forty years ago. I sought it in those days with my father’s old Balda, a 120 film camera, from the 1940’s. It had a queer, knocked lens that gave a strange, closely overlapping double image. But as I grew older and began to earn money, I sought it with a long string of 35mm SLRs, through several thousand frames of Fujichrome. And then I abandoned all that for the miracle of digital and a one megapixel Kodak, even though that wasn’t quite the miracle we’d hoped for – just the beginning of another technology arms race I waited a quarter century to catch up to the quality of my Olympus OM10 – which some bastard nicked from my car in 1986. And now, when even twenty five megapixels fails me, I look for it in the gaps, under the microscope of Photoshop, under the shifting moods attainable by all that digital fakery, and I look for it under the soft blown smears of inadequate shutter speed, and the promise of a tripod next time.

But in all of this, the most valuable lesson photography has taught me is the irrelevance of equipment, of technology, of technique, indeed also the fallacy of seeking to record the spirit of the earth at all, to say nothing of the ghost-like reflection of oneself in it. But this is not to dismiss the art altogether, for at least when we settle down, say in the midst of a spring meadow with our camera to await just the right fall of light, – be it with a 1940’s squinting Balda or last year’s Nikon – we slow time to the beating of our hearts, we open up the present moment, and we re-establish a sense of our presence in the  world.

Only when we focus down, say on the texture of a tree’s bark, or on the translucent quality of a broad Sycamore leaf when the glancing sun catches its top, do we sense the aliveness of nature and our aliveness within it. Only then do we remember what beauty really is and how it feels as it caresses our senses. Only then do we realise the best photographs of all are the ones we do not take, but the ones we remember. And we remember them because, through photography, we have learned to take the time to look with more than just our eyes, to not just see the world, but feel it in our bones.

Still, I may be wrong, in which case I’ve still got high hopes for that Leica lens.

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mazda at glassonThe last Friday of February is the one that usually kicks off my year, and for the past four years I’ve been travelling to the little Lancashire port of Glasson to walk the same section of the coastal way from Bank End Farm, on the spectacular Cockerham Marsh. There’s an element of groundhog day to this outing, underlined by the uncanny similarity of the weather on each occasion – temperature just above freezing, clear skies, wintry sun , and a light but bitterly cold wind blowing in off the sea. Today is no exception, but there’s a difference in the air, a subtle nuance – call it imagination, call it superstition, but I have a feeling this run is coming to a close now, that next year will be different. It has to be. Everything must change if it is to remain true, and whatever does not change cannot be true, thus I’m picking up an element of fantasy to the day which, although pleasant enough, cannot be entirely trusted.

The Mazda was reluctant after a very cold few weeks in the garage, and very little exercise over winter, the engine catching only at the last minute as the battery faded to nothing. Then the ABS warning light remained on throughout the outward journey – brakes were fine, so most likely a problem with the anti-lock sensor. It’s a thing with Mazdas. There’s also a grand’s worth of repairs necessary to her bodywork if I decide to keep her beyond this year. I have the sense she’s reminding me of her mortality. It’s all fixable but she’s a second car, not my main driver, and all of this seems a bit extravagant and unnecessary, especially in the current oppressively austere zeitgeist. It’s a pity because I love the car like no other I’ve owned, and we’ve had some fun, but she’s sixteen years old now, coming up on ninety thousand, and she isn’t going to last for ever. That’s just another fantasy.

Still, for all of our antiquity, we pick up a tail on the way, a Mercedes SLK, brand new. This happens a lot. Last time, as I recall, it was a Maserati. These supercars growl up close, like predatory animals, glue themselves aggressively to the bumper, then, at the first opportunity pull out wide and disappear in a cloud of dust and noise, and all in order to prove their willy is bigger than mine. Now the Mazda is a lively little thing, but the sense of her is mostly internal. She’s also worth next to nothing. That she attracts such attention is laughable, not flattering, and do I really want us to go on being the foil for this particular kind of conspicuous consumption?

The Mazda sighs impatiently at such class-warriorish ruminations, rattles up to Glasson and deposits us on the carpark at the marina. Here we leave her to admire the view, the basin running like burnished silver this morning, boats nodding at their moorings. We tog up and set out on the familiar way, first of all calling in Glasson’s gorgeous canal-side Parish Church to admire the spill of light through stained glass, and to see if there are any good second hand books for sale on the stall at the back. Today there are none that take my fancy, so on we go.

cockerham farmThe walk first takes us south across sodden meadows as far as the lush fractal patterned marsh at Cockerham, from where we pick up the coastal way. Winter wet has left the meadows heavy, and they are slow to drain. Migratory swans pepper the green sward, settling there to rest, and forage. They are not gregarious birds and spread themselves out into introspective, moody dots of white, their grumpy honking a reminder to steer clear. We pick up the more cheerful sound of waders down on the marsh, mostly Oyster Catchers and Curlew piping. There’s a Plover doing acrobatics across the emerald meadow, pee-witting as it goes, and then as we cross the causeway we are treated to the most astonishing display – a vast murmuration of starlings rises from its roost around the farm and swirls a living spiral in the air.

Unlike other birds en-mass which we tend to view from afar, Starlings are an easier treat for the photographer performing it would seem for our pleasure at much closer range, and quite exhilarating . It’s a whirring buzzing chattering shriek of a thing, a pointed cloud swooping and soaring like a single living entity, drawn into strange, pulsing patterns and made entirely of tens of thousands of birds. I am so astonished that by the time I remember the camera, I manage only the weakest of shots as the birds move north.

plover scar lightThe Plover scar light, broken last year after being struck by a ship, is now repaired and looking like new. I try a few shots but the light is suddenly flat and I need a longer lens to do it justice. And the narrow passage across Jansen Pool, where I nearly had to swim in order to complete the walk last year, is now repaired so the path can be followed without risk to dignity. Then there’s just the last long quagmire of Marsh lane and its ancient line of hawthorns, twisted into fantastic wind-blasted shapes, and we’re back – another completed round of Glasson and Cockerham, on the last Friday of February.

Image5It remains only for us to take lunch in the Lantern o-er Lune, from whose brightly lit interior we shelter from the biting wind, and pretend it is a summer’s day. Tasty Cumberland Sausage Panini and a gorgeous salad soothes our lunchtime cravings. Over coffee we gaze out at the water, and we contemplate this particularly lovely and ancient part of Lancashire. Meanwhile the Mazda catches the sun. She looks ever so lovely out there, even shaded and lined as she is by the mud and salt of winter.

Okay, so here’s what we’ll do: We’ll get the ABS repaired first, then see if she’ll squeeze through the MOT into next year without the bodywork doing. It’s a good call, and she rewards us by putting out the ABS light on the way home.

Who says living magically makes no sense?

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white coppice cottages

The White Coppice Cottages

Sometimes we get stuck in a groove, doing the same old things, visiting the same old places, but even when we think we know a place well, there is still the opportunity for fresh discovery, always another path we can take.

So today we’re tackling the Black Coppice Quarries, just a short walk from the lovely hamlet of White Coppice, nestling in a fold at the edge of the  West Pennine Moors. I have not done this particular route before. It will eventually deliver us up to a trackless expanse of moor, one that’s vaguely familiar to me, but by a kind of back door, and I’m not sure where to go after that. It’s past mid afternoon, and these February days are short, shadows already lengthening. It’s not the best time for mucking about but I’m sure we’ll be okay.

great hill from the white coppice cairn

Anglezarke Moor

It’s a little used route and all too soon vanishes into a lonely amphitheatre of gritstone crag and scree that echoes strangely. We choose a likely looking ridge, clear of the precipice – just a faint path worn through the heather, enough to inspire confidence we are not merely following sheep. The afternoon is clear, the sunshine almost warm. The outlook from the ridge is spectacular with vistas across lush green farmland running down to the Lancashire plain, and the sea glittering beyond. The light is tending towards amber now, the sun about to send shadows leaping from the ditches and hedgerows.

unfinished millstone above the quarries at white coppice

Abandoned millstone – Anglezarke Moor

We pick up the line of a stout fence that bounds the precipice and, after a breathy climb, delivers us up to Anglezarke Moor. There’s a megalithic structure just here, a rock slab tilted up a little from the horizontal, resting on stones. It doesn’t look much but an archaeological survey in the eighties has it down as a chambered cairn – a bronze age burial.

I’m not sure. That the moor hereabouts is also dotted with abandoned millstones lends sufficient room for doubt. Some are in their earliest stages of manufacture, just a few taps of the chisel, others almost finished, evidence of months of labour in the wide open, all wasted when the market for such things collapsed.

So, is this an ancient burial, or a stone merely propped up, ready to be worked by quarrymen? The ancients favoured west facing escarpments for their funerary rites, which makes this the perfect spot, ritualised daily by the setting sun. Romanticism and geomancy favour the former then, but there’s still magic in the latter, all be it of a lesser vintage. Imagination swells to fill the blanks, adds layers of psyche to the deadness of mere geography, and we wonder,….

grain pole hill

Grain Pole Hill

But speaking of the sun, time is short, so we head towards Grain Pole Hill, some nine hundred feet above the sea, distinguished from the moor by its dark cap of heather above the paler whispering grasses. There’s no path here and the grass is deeply hummocked – a tough stretch, heavy on the legs and sweaty now, but not far until we gain the easier going of the ridge that takes us more swiftly south, to the summit.

There was once a cairn here, a stone man, visible for miles. I once spent an afternoon tidying him up, raising him to a shapely little cone. But he’s gone now, and so have the stones – not merely fallen aside, but spirited away, perhaps one by one by pilgrims heading east, to the shaggy dome of Hurst Hill and the newly massive cairn that’s been raised there. The stone men move around up here, you see? And the ways they mark shift slowly over time.

way cairn

Waycairn – Anglezarke

The day is too short to visit Hurst Hill. Maybe next time. Instead, we discover a newly raised cairn to the south and from here we make out a route taking us west, downhill, into the sun, picking its way along a line of trial shafts – bell-pits most likely – just dimples in the moor now, like a run of aerial bombing craters. They are surrounded by the spoil thrown up, and there’s lush green grass, in contrast to the normal dun colour of the moor. Already ancient at the time of the first ordnance surveys, they straddle a fault line where minerals are manifested in the earth by unimaginable pressures. They have found lead here, also Barium, Galena, Witherite and Copper,…

But nowadays this line of shafts serves only to lead us unerringly down to Moor Road, to the access point by Siddow Fold. It’s a promising little path, attractive in its turns and in its timeless use of cairns, set against the sky to guide. But these old stone men have a habit of moving about, so its as well to have a feel for the land yourself, taking their advice if they’re of a mind to give it, while not relying on them too much, because they may not be there next time.

watermans

Waterman’s Cottage – Anglezarke

The little road snakes us down to the tip of the Anglezarke reservoir, to the Waterman’s mock Tudor Cottage, once such a lure for the camera with its reflections in black water, and still a pretty subject but looking now like it’s in need of work. Here, a long, deep-puddled path takes us back to White Coppice. The light is golden, the shadows running, and the air stilling down in preparation for the coming of darkness. We have not walked more than three miles, but it’s a journey that’s opened up fresh avenues in the dense forest of imagination.

In certain esoteric philosophies it is said we are destined to repeat our lives over and over, word for word, step by step, unless we can wake up to the process sufficient to say, hold on, what about this path over here? So we should always keep an eye open for the paths we have overlooked. No matter how well we think we know a place, there’s always something else to be gleaned. Like those mysteriously moving stone men, we just shift our focus a bit, and our lives, like the land under our feet takes on an unsuspected freshness, newly rich in meaning and direction.

path to white coppice

To White Coppice – West Pennines

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great wave croppedI lost an evening writing because my laptop, which runs on Windows 10, decided to update itself. I’ve tried various ways of stopping it from doing this, but it’s smarter than me and it will have its updates when it wants them, whether I like it or not, even at the cost of periodically throttling my machine and rendering it useless. Then I have to spend another evening undoing the update.

I don’t suppose it matters – not in the great scheme of things, anyway. I mean it’s not like I’m up against any publisher’s deadlines or anything. I feel it more as an intrusion by an alien intelligence, adding another non-productive task to the list of other non-productive tasks of which my life largely consists these days.

No, in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I write, or what I write, or how I write, because there’s this aphorism that says something to the effect that in spite of how we feel, virtually all the time, things can never be more perfect than they are right now, that attaining this glorious state of being is simply matter of removing the scales from our eyes, of seeing and feeling the world differently. From that perspective, blogging’s just a big box I dump my spleen into now and then and my novels, what I once thought of as my reason for being – struggles for plausibility, for meaning, authentically channelling the muse, desperately seeking the right ending and all that – I mean,… really, who cares? It’s just some stuff I made up.

As you can tell, I’m feeling very Zen at the moment. Either that or depressed. The difference between Zen and depression? Depression is to be oppressed by emptiness. Zen is to embrace it. It’s to do with the same existential conundrum, I think, just opposite ends of the scale.

The writing life is one of negotiating distraction. You hold the intention to write at the back of your mind while being diverted by all these other activities – making a meal, washing it up, You-tube, Instagram, mowing the grass, cleaning your shoes, scraping the squished remains of that chocolate bar from your car seat,…

Such tasks are not unavoidable. You could simply ignore them, flagellate yourself, force yourself to sit down and write, but sometimes if you’re too disciplined, you find the words won’t come anyway because the muse is slighted, or out to lunch or something. So you fiddle about, you meander your way around your distractions, all the while building pressure to get something out, to sit down when you find a bit of space and peace, usually late in the day when you’ve already promised yourself an early night, and you’re too tired to do anything about it anyway. And then you find Windows 10 is in the process of updating itself.

Damn!

So what is it with this technology anyway? Does a writer really need it to such an extent? I mean, computers seem to be assuming a sense of self importance way beyond their utility. I suppose I could go back to longhand, like when I was a schoolboy, pre-computer days, or for £20 I could go back to Bygone Times and pick up that old Silver Reed clatter bucket and eat trees with it again – do they still sell Tippex? Neither of these options appeal though, being far too retrograde. No, sadly, a writer needs a computer now, especially a writer like me who relies upon it as a portal to the online market – “market” being perhaps not the best choice of the word, implying as it does a place to sell goods when I don’t actually sell anything. What do you call a market where you give your stuff away? Answers on an e-postcard please. But really, it doesn’t matter, because remember: nothing could ever be more perfect than it is right now.

Except,… everything is weird. Have you noticed? America’s gone mad, and we Brits, finally wetting our pants with xenophobia, have sawn off the branch we’ve been sitting on for forty years, gone crashing down into the unknown. And if this is the best we can come up with after all our theorising and thinking, and our damned Windows 10 with its constant updates, it’s time we wiped the slate clean and started afresh with our ABC’s, and a better heart and a clearer head.

I don’t know,… if I actually I knew anything about Zen, it would be a good time to retreat into monkish seclusion, compose impenetrable Haiku, scratch the lines on pebbles with a rusty nail and toss them into the sea. We’ve had ten thousand years of the wisdom of sages and the world’s getting dumber by the day. How does that happen?

Not to be discouraged, I bought a copy of Windows XP for a fiver off Ebay. It’s as obsolete as you can get these days while remaining useful. Indeed, it’s still probably controlling all the world’s nuclear power stations – except for those still relying on DOS – so I should manage okay with it. I have it on an old laptop, permanently isolated from the Internet, so the bad guys can’t hack it, and it can’t update itself. It responds like greased lightning. Okay, I know I still need Windows 10 to actually publish stuff, but at least I have a machine I can rely on for the basics of just writing now.

But did I ever tell you I don’t like writing about writing? Well, here I am doing it again aren’t I? But have you noticed, if you search WordPress for “writers”, or “writing”, that’s what tends to pop up, all of us writers writing about writing, when what I really want to read is their actual stuff, what they think about – you know, things, what the world looks like from their part of, well, the world, and through their eyes and their idiosyncrasies, and all that, which is what I thought writers were supposed to do. Or maybe that’s it these days and, like Windows 10 we’ve been updated beyond the point to which we make sense any more, become instead a massive circular reference in the spreadsheet of life, destined soon to disappear up our own posteriors.

Okay, we’ve tripped the thousand word warning now, when five hundred is considered a long piece these days – just enough to sound quirky and cool, while saying nothing at all.

Brevity, Michael! No one likes a smart-arse,… especially a long winded one.

Graeme out.

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greenbelt

My walk home from school was more pleasant than my walk to it. The meadows were darker on the way there, more restless and brooding, but brighter, greener, fresher on the way back. Thus the land reflects emotion, amplifies it, responds to imagination. To know the land for long enough is to have it become a part of who we are, mirror to our mood. To know buildings is not the same. It is only in the land the spirit of place can dwell, and when the land is gone, covered over with the built environment, the spirit dies.

There was a little brook by the roadside where we used to stop on the way home from school. I remember it as a dappled oasis, a stream full of little stars and reward aplenty for the indignities suffered during the school day. I remember too the faces of my pals, hear the echo of their voices, feel the mood of joyous play.

The brook has gone now. It was a nuisance to grown-ups, and is diverted through a culvert, buried beneath the entrance to a housing estate, as indeed every meadow along that mile long route to school is similarly built upon, the spirit of place expunged by “development”.

In similar vein my childhood bedroom looked out over the green of the Yarrow Valley, a place of quiet contemplation and leafy walks, to which I am still regularly drawn. To lose oneself in the quiet of a moving meditation is to envision the land with a magic others cannot see or feel. The romanticism of past ages touched me there, rendered me sensitive to dimensions beyond sight and ordinary knowing, and it’s to that place I owe my writing. But like my little stream of stars, there are rumours it too will soon be gone. Others say the rumours are false, but I’m unsettled by them all the same, grown cynical and lacking trust in my old age. Housing has encroached so much in past decades, it seems a natural progression for them to take what little remains here. 

I remember coming up from the river once, crossing a particularly lovely stretch of meadow. I was brooding on a girl I knew – or rather a girl I wanted very much to know. It was a glowering dusk, and against the skyline there was a huge, wind-blasted tree, sculpted by centuries of leaning against the prevailing wind, and there was the gentle curve of a hill, very feminine in outline, and a hint of thunder in a hot wind that rendered the leaves restless – all of this a perfect mirror for my mood. The meadow too was dewy, my footsteps forming a lone trail, lightly drawn as if upon a silvery veil, reflecting the fragility of the moment. It was such a long time ago, but whenever I return I am reminded of that night, the way my imagination connected, and how the land spoke.

Today that same perfect curve of skyline is broken by the jackknifed outline of houses, and there are these possibly pernicious rumours that speak of ripping up the meadow, as the houses move yet further south into this still glorious belt of green. I have watched the inexorable march year on year with a mixture of profound regret and puzzlement. Can it really be that, like my childhood stream of stars, it will be gone? And why do so few of us value it so much, when others value it so little they can blithely trade it on the market and dig it up.

Developers talk of greenbelt as if its preservation is an encumbrance, a distraction from the target to build and monetise an otherwise unproductive resource. But uninterrupted green is important too, its value intangible of course, at least in terms of pounds and pence, and if all we have left is a quarter mile belt around our towns, sufficient only as a place we take our dogs to defecate, we have already lost too much.

Of course there can be no permanence in the material world. All things must change; we all grow old and die, and sometimes the storms will come and fell the mighty oak, known and loved by generations. Likewise our footsteps, traced across the dewy meadow, will be gone by morning, lost to a new dawn. But let them be dissolved by sunlight, taken back into the eternal memory that is the spirit of the land, not obliterated by the ignominy of several thousand tons of brick and concrete.

 

 

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