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Posts Tagged ‘landscape’

Durleston wood is the setting for my novel “In Durleston Wood”. It’s where I grew up. I changed its name to protect it from visitor numbers, should the novel ever become a bestseller. Well, stranger things have happened. It didn’t, but Durleston, like many of our green spaces, is suffering anyway. I’ve written about this before.

In the book, there’s a beech tree, overlooking a bend in the river. It’s hundreds of years old. The protagonist sits under it, talks to imaginary people, and contemplates things. Like him, I’ve known that tree since childhood, and treasured the idea that it would be there forever. However, over the decade since I wrote the story I’ve had intimations of its mortality. A few years ago it lost a substantial proportion of its branches in winter storms. The more optimistic side of me hoped the rest of it would recover, other branches filling the void, plus I thought, it’s been there so long, it seemed unlikely it would fall down on my brief watch on earth. But fall, it has.

I’ve been away from Durleston throughout the pandemic. It’s an attractive bit of countryside, and social media did what my novel didn’t: it put Durleston on the map. Throughout the furlough periods, more and more people have been coming to what I once thought of as a secret domain, largely unknown outside the local area. The paths became clogged and churned to slime with processions of shuffling, noisome people, sometimes literally by the coach-load. So I’ve stayed away.

Now the pubs and shops are open, things have calmed down, midweek at least, and I returned today to find all that remained of the beech tree was a stump. Now, I can hardly blame this on the pandemic. It actually looked pretty rotten inside, like it’s been dying for a long time. It lies crashed to earth, scattered as habitat for bugs and fungi, all part of the natural cycle of the woodlands. Still, it was a shock, the loss of its sheltering canopy transforming the light in this corner of the woods into something eerie and unfamiliar. But more, I can’t help the feeling, that it should have fallen on my watch, is darkly auspicious of events in the wider world.

There have been other changes here in the year of my absence. The path along the river was bordered in places by lush, rolling grassland. It’s been used for livestock grazing – cattle and sheep – for as long as I can remember. But now the green is silver, the meadows covered in plastic, hundreds of acres of it. I’m not well up on farming practice and I don’t know what the crop is here, but the change is sudden, and it’s all the same – has the feel of a kind of all-eggs-in-one basket desperation to it, tearing up and rendering the picturesque landscape as something industrial and horrific, and then what do we do with all that plastic? Do we send it to Turkey, to be burned, along with all the rest? Dare I hope the stuff is in some way bio-degradable?

Then, other meadows that border Durleston are to be built upon. There is a long running battle with a national house-builder who is looking to put up two hundred houses on the greenbelt. This has been ongoing for a while, and though rejected by the planning department years ago, the council is losing the fight, ground down through one doggedly vexatious appeal after the other. The intent is clear, and so far as I’m concerned, the land is lost. I wonder why this bothers me, since I don’t actually live around here any more.

When a man we know grows old and dies, it’s a time for sadness, but we recognize it’s unnatural we should go on forever. We mourn, we pause in reflection, and in celebration of the man’s life, and we accept that he is gone. Why can we not treat our memories of places like Durelston in the same way?

I did not think I would be having to deal with this in my lifetime, the actual death of Durleston. It had seemed such an unchanging place when I was a boy. But now the beech tree has gone, the buffer zones of green meadow are covered in plastic sheeting, and the houses are coming down to the edge of the wood, which will transform it into little more than a dog’s toilet.

In town, if a coffee shop is changed into a charity shop, or vice versa, there is no personal sense of loss. Indeed, I couldn’t care less. Town is town; it is a literal representation of itself. But in a landscape the representations are fluid. A meadow at dusk is also a canvas on which to let play the imagination. The starry heads of the allium in the shady deep of the wood speak of something fey, until the mind trips over the vulgar beer-can, and then they do not speak at all.

I don’t live around here any more, but travel back when I can, because in many ways this place nurtured me. I like to pay homage to it, and have taken comfort down the decades from what, for so long, had been its unchanging nature. But I’m going to have to find a way of turning my back, and letting go, as I have similarly let go the lives of friends and family who have passed away. Of course, Durleston is still here. It still has a physical presence, a scrap of ancient woodland on a bend in the river, but in a deeper sense, it’s finished.

There is a story taking shape here, and it’s not the same as the one I wrote “In Durleston Wood”. And it’s not about nostalgia either, nor corporate greed, nor political corruption writ large. Such things are so obvious now they’re barely worth a mention. It’s about looking at the land and seeing more than what is physically there, and whether that’s important or not. And if we say it’s not then the world moves off in a particular direction, one that is uninteresting to me. But if we say it is, then that’s a thing worth exploring, indeed one of the few noble things left to us, but places like Durleston are vanishing fast in England. The towns are all merging into one another as houses are thrown up on greenbelt, and none but the rentier class can afford them. So it’s already looking like a lost cause.

I look at my broken tree-stump and I do indeed read it as auspicious, that it should have fallen on my watch. The future isn’t a road to the sunlit uplands, certainly not looking at it from the perspective of the north of England, and based on the direction of travel so far. But then we’ve known that since the eighties. Still, it’s looking like I may get another story out of it. Let’s call it: “Leaving Durleston”, or how about: “Letting go”? Or more simply: “A Lone Tree Falls”.

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On Withnell Moor – West Pennines

There’s a remoteness about the Withnell moors that belies the fact even the loneliest bits of them are probably only half an hour’s walk from the well populated villages of Brinscall, or Abbey Village. In the nineteenth century they were home to many small-scale farms but, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, changing times were making it harder to justify such remote habitation, the mills and quarries being more of a draw for employment than farming, at least on this scale. Then an outbreak of typhoid, in Kent (1897), sent the public health bodies into a spin. The Withnell moors were (and still are) part of the water catchment area for the city of Liverpool, and the urgent word went out we should avoid anything, animal or human, defecating upon it. So the leases were withdrawn, and the farms fell to ruin.

I’ve come here today to photograph the sycamores at one particular ruin, Grouse Cottage. The weather’s fair for now, though looking a bit changeable, and I find I’m in the mood to explore further, if I can. I’m wondering if in fact, we can find a route up Great Hill from this end of the West Pennines. There isn’t one marked on the map, and scant trace of such in aerial photographs. But it would make sense, this group of farms being linked by a humble walked way, to the now similarly ruined farms over on the Heapey side of the moor. We’ll see.

The sycamores at Grouse Cottage

Grouse Cottage looks like it’s been gone centuries, but it was still lived in in the 1950s, one of the last of the farms to be vacated. I have seen photographs of it from its working days, and can only say its eradication has been most severe. Interesting to me, my mother, resident nearby in Abbey Village until 1960, would have known it as a working farm. A small piece of it is still standing, which adds some architectural interest to the photograph of the trees – this being what was the outside lavatory. The rest is left to imagination. It was dramatically positioned with fine views but, like all the farms out this way, and from the stories my mother told, a hell of a place to be in winter.

Twisted Beech – Botany Bay

From Grouse Cottage we head south now, to the corner of a tumbled drystone wall, then west, towards Rushy brook. We cross by the ruins of Popes, another lost farm, then onto the rise of the moor, and eventually to a curious, lone beech tree by the ruins of Botany Bay. This farm is renamed on OS maps from the 1930’s as the “Summer House”, it’s having by then been abandoned, and adapted for use as what I suppose was a luncheon hut, for the grouse shooting fraternity. Little remains of it now. The tree is remarkable though – twisted, stunted by ferocious weather, but stoically hanging on. Remarkable too is an upright stone, unworked and heavily weathered, one I reckon predates the farm by several thousand years and marks a previous era of habitation.

Botany Bay stone

From Botany Bay there is a sketchy path south and west, towards the trees that mark the ruins of Solomon’s and New Temple. It’s New Temple I’m after, to a little isthmus of benign pasture that marks the end of the ancient enclosures, and their abutment with the wilderness of uncultivated moor. If there’s a route up Great Hill, here’s where we’ll find it.

The temple isn’t an actual temple, no doubt much to the disappointment of the neo-pagans who have been known to frequent it, in search of “vibes”. It’s just another ruined farm, marked by a pair of magnificent sycamores, romantic in their isolation, and striking today with a background of moody sky. There are heavy showers sweeping the plain, drifting up the Ribble Valley, circling behind us over Darwen Moor. Meanwhile, we enjoy an island of calm and intermittent hazy sun. Anything incoming is at least thirty minutes away, but we seem to be in the eye of the system, so I reckon we’ll be okay.

It turns out there is indeed a little-walked path from here – no more than a sheep-trod, but inspiring sufficient confidence to explore further. It takes us up the nondescript hummock of Old Man’s Hill, then loosely follows the line of Rushy Brook, into the lap of Great Hill. I wouldn’t come this way in poor weather as it would be hard to trace, and it’s a rum wasteland of tussocky grass to go off course in, but otherwise the way makes sense, and follows a reasonably dry route.

The New Temple Sycamores

The plan now, if we can avoid a drenching, is to take in the top of Great Hill, then circle back via Pimms and the Calf Hey brook. I was there some weeks ago, but I want to shoot the trees at Pimms again, against this impressive sky, and to get a name for them. The buds are opening now and hopefully will reveal their signature leaves – sycamores probably.

Great Hill summit – West Pennines

There’s not a soul on Great Hill, again. Everyone must be in the pubs, or the shops as we find ourselves once more in one of those “hair down”, between wave periods. Meanwhile, the weather dances round us, a whirligig of drama, while our own steps remain blessed by dry, and that lingering crazy, hazy sun. This place feels as familiar as the back of my own hand, but no matter how well we think we know a place, there is always another perspective, always something fresh to be gained. If that insight is the one blessing of these Covid restrictions, then so be it.

As for the trees at Pimms, they are indeed sycamores, the same as at Solomon’s, and Grouse Cottage, common enough on the moors, as anywhere. The Woodland Trust tells me they’re not native to our islands, sycamores having been introduced in the 15th or 16th centuries from mainland Europe. They’re hard as nails though, as evidenced by their soaring height here, in defiance of the harshest weather Lancashire can muster. They’ve outlived the farms anyway, stand as monuments to them and, in the present day, provide beacons for navigation.

Roddlesworth falls

So, now we’re heading down through the plantations at Roddlesworth again – a second chance to grab a decent shot of the little falls on the Roddlesworth river. I make a better job of it this time – the Lumix I’m carrying today being a much faster camera than the Nikon I used some weeks before. Then the car’s waiting, my good lady’s car today. Unlike mine, it can navigate the humps and hollows of Roddlesworth lane, without getting beached.

As we ease off the boots, the rain catches up with us. It’s nothing dramatic – more gentle and cooling. It’s been kind enough to hold off for our walk, and a little wet is welcome after such a long period of dry. My garden will appreciate it, and it should replenish the water-butts, which are already at rock bottom.

It turned out to be a good circuit, not as far as it feels on the legs though – about five and a half miles, seven hundred feet of ascent or so. It was a little eerie. Being more used to dodging Covid crowds, I saw not a soul all afternoon, and had only the ghosts among the ruins for company. To be sure this is one of the loneliest of approaches to Great Hill I know.

There’s something sobering about the lost farms of the West Pennines. It’s the idea of, season after season, eking out a hard living from an unforgiving moor, and now those lives passed on, moved on as all things change and move on, and the reeds grow back, where once the deep-walled lane echoed to the sound of the passing cart and the driven beasts. And the multi-storied life, hard won, is reduced in no time at all to a pile of knee-high rubble, to be poked at, and pondered by passing Romantics, like me.

For more information on this part of the world, do check out:

“The lost farms of Brinscall Moor” by David Clayton

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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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I’ve never had as much time on my hands, retiring into this slow time when everything is shut, and we can’t go anywhere. But the time is passing anyway, and perhaps too quickly. From not that long ago, rising early to a long commute, I’m now up around eight, making coffee, and taking it back to bed. I cannot overstate the sense of luxury in this. I read the news, do some online lessons – learning French and brushing up my chess. Then I start the day, pick up the housework, bits of DIY, walk if it’s fine, or sometimes if it’s not. And I write.


I’ve been writing a piece on Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, the father of consumerism. I was exploring the limitations of a society that reflects the shallow desires of the self, asking how we can move beyond it, and is it wise to do so? But do I know what I’m talking about? Have I sufficient grasp, sufficient depth? Can I come up with a conclusion from the mess of it that would not merely be a shallow eye-roll at the shallowness of the world? And is this not just old ground anyway, reflections of pre-retirement angst?

Potato ridges and the coming of snow

Then I had this dream. I was dancing with an exotically costumed woman, like a queen from Ancient Egypt. We were doing the waltz, foxtrot, that sort of thing, but instead of music she had letters from my past, things I’d written. As she chose each piece, I aged or grew younger in accordance. She was playing me, across time. I was all ages at the same time. I like to think I can read dreams but, though I’ve pondered long upon this one, I can only go on the mood it left when I woke. And when I woke, I didn’t care about the Freud piece. Indeed I was embarrassed to have written it. It was about hell and handcarts, and we’re past all that. So I shelved it, and I’m writing this instead.


The car still hasn’t moved. I’ve had the battery on charge a few times, after it flat-lined. It needs a good run, but for now it languishes in a cluttered garage that I intend tidying, but not yet. I read there are people driving hundreds of miles to walk from my doorstep, and here I am in solidarity with the seventy-five percent, making do with what our own doorsteps have to offer. The cops clock incomers’ number plates, as and when they can, and fine them. It had me wondering if, during the blitz and the blackout, and all that, there were people exercising their rights to liberty in defiance of authority by shining torches into the night sky even as the bombers approached?


I’ve been thinking about time, actually. Thinking back to past adventures, past travels that, at the time, always seemed accompanied by the feeling that first pass was just a dress rehearsal, that I would come back another time, in slower time, and spend time in proper contemplation of a place or a thing, or a journey – if you know what I mean. But already it’s a half a century ago, and you never do go back. I tell myself I was too busy working and bringing up children. Well, now I’ve plenty of time, but can’t go anywhere, and the car’s battery is flat, and it’s dead of winter anyway. So, I suppose what I’m saying is obvious: life is not a dress rehearsal, and every experience – even ironing my shirts this morning – needs to be experienced fully, as it happens, and for whatever juice there is in it, because every day of our lives is a one time thing, it is a once told story, the pages burned each night on the altar of our dreams.

Earth, tree and sky


I feel for the old folks who are counting down, perhaps on the fingers of one hand now, their remaining summers. These restrictions are particularly irksome for them. But I feel the passing of time too. For years, I’ve gone to Glasson on the last Friday of February, done the walk down to Cockerham, lunched at Lantern O’er Lune. Ah, those were the days! This year it looks like it’ll be another doorstep walk instead, perhaps accompanied by a flask of soup for a picnic. But how much more can one squeeze out of the Lancashire plain? We were hardly friends to begin with, and there are limits to its generosity, surely?

It was cold this afternoon, setting out again across the plain, There was a raw wind with bits of snow in it, fluttering about like moths. I was later setting out than usual, less than an hour from sundown, but I was only after a short walk among the mud and potatoes, out to a familiar tree and, I hoped, some interesting light. The way was heavy, almost too muddy even for wellies. The sky was dull, oppressive, pregnant with snow. But as I reached the tree, there was a transformation as there often is around sunset, an opening of the sky to more dramatic contrasts. There were shades of – tobacco, blue-grey, white, and cobalt. I took five exposures with the Lumix, bracketing stops above and below – still chasing the high dynamic range look. We would see what came out in “post”, as they say. Then I moved on to see what else looked promising.


I never used to bother much with the sky. It was always there of course. It was moody on occasion, but I preferred it blue and clear, and forgettable. I should have taken more notice of it in the past. In the past my cameras simply provided a record of places. Now they teach a way of seeing, and they see more than I do. The high dynamic range pictures are coming out better as I get the hang of the software, teasing out more of what the sensor sees and I, on account of my human eye, do not. I’m favouring a method that gives an antique look, grainy, detailed. I like the way it renders the sky.

Lumix LX100 (Mk1)


It’s possible of course, I will return to the scene of former travels, when we are allowed. But time will have moved those places on, made of them a fresh present to be enjoyed in the moment, observed, wrung dry for whatever that moment has to offer. My memory of the past is beginning to sharpen, as I’m told it does in later life. I’m sure it’s also becoming rose-tinted. There are clear dangers in that of course, for it blinds us to the importance of the fleeting present.


I could not have been much of a dancer when I was young, and I wonder what the Egyptian queen saw in me back then. One thing from the dream I remember was her timelessness, also a sense of her devotion and her protection – provided I keep faith in her. We keep that faith in many ways. One of them, I think, is in understanding this slow time, this time of doorstep walks across the mud of the plain, that this is not a dress rehearsal, that we need to carry as much as is useful of this time into the future with us, because there’s no going back, and the earth is fertile wherever and whenever we cast our eye, if we only have the eye to see.

Earth , tree and sky

But neither should we discount those past moments we feel we failed to do justice to at the time. We do not read the letters of our lives in sequence. Sure, that way they make sense as a sequence of actions, but the broader meaning in them, the soul-meaning, only becomes clear when we consider them all at the same time. That way our lives do not start from thin threads, swell to fullness, before tapering off into emptiness. Things only make proper sense from a transcendent perspective. That’s a hard one to visualize, especially at times of strife, but sometimes the camera catches it unawares. Mostly it doesn’t. But it’s there all the same, and its in the ordinary, the mundane. It’s in the glamour of a broad dynamic sweep of sky, it’s in the mud of the earth, and it’s in the strange sleeping beauty of trees in winter.


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I’ve been thinking about the Muse and how indiscriminate she is. The Muse is where the desire to create comes from. It’s a mysterious thing, a surge of something from deep in the imagination that we can overlay upon reality. It makes the mundane magical, blissful, sometimes even shocking. It’s partly of us, but mostly, I think, it’s something “other”. Men personify it as a woman, an angel, a goddess, because its nature is akin to love. You hear her singing a song that can lift you to heaven, while being perfectly aware, as in the siren song, it might also lure you to your doom. The choice is yours, the risk is yours, because she doesn’t care, and your biggest mistake is thinking she does.

It’s like now, heading out across Lancashire’s Harrock Hill in this beautiful, late afternoon winter’s sun. Winter is a time for trees, for the bare shapes of them against the sky. There are some good, ancient specimens here, lone trees in a gentle landscape, something expressive about them, like the header picture, in this case a pair of pollarded oaks, grown together like lovers to form between them, a single perfect hemispherical dome. They are expressive, though of what, I cannot say, only that the Muse has lured me out here, teasing me with the notion I might catch a glimpse of her, if I tread carefully.

So much rain these past weeks, the paths are deep in mud now, more Wellingtons than walking boots kind of terrain, more waxed thornproof than Goretex kind of walking. Last time I came this way, I saw a buzzard, close enough to get a picture of him. He’s out again today, but keeps a wary, camera-shy distance, circles the blue in lazy sweeps, pivoting the world about his wing-tip. No muse for him though, I’m thinking, poor creature, just the will to live, and to live he must eat, and to eat he must kill. Only we humans see the poetry in him, and then only some of us. Only we sense the magic behind his manifestation, and have the strange psychological disposition to romanticize it.

It’s quiet for a Covid afternoon. I encounter just the one family with an army of small, ferocious children and big, wet, bouncy dogs, wife with a voice like a foghorn and a friendly “hello”, husband with a face like slapped arse, sullen, trailing, and wishing he was somewhere else. I hear the children squealing from a mile away. If they’re not careful they’ll disturb the faery, and they really don’t want to do that. Mud and air, a low slanting sun and the noise of children. They’re loving it, as are the dogs, crazy, unconscious, delightful creatures. My own children are in their twenties now, and forever precious, but I miss them at that carefree, squealing age, the age before mud became irksome, and the world of men got hold of them.

Anyone can cop for this burning desire to create stuff. You don’t have to have gone to a posh school and talk like Hugh Grant. Fair enough, a good education helps you to think and express yourself, so that’s a plus. Then the posh school will instil in you a pathological self belief, so if you’re a career creative, that all adds up. But if you make it big or not, or die in obscurity – again – the Muse doesn’t care. Nor does she care if your fame spreads her gifts far and wide, or if you keep them a guarded secret along with the fluff in your pocket, it’s all the same to her. I’m not sure, but I think her motive is simply to offer you the chance to let her into your life, in some ways even to be your life. Any misunderstandings as regards the nature of the relationship that henceforth develops are all yours.

The philosopher Schopenhauer held a view that the only visible manifestation of the power behind the universe was in the blind will to life. This manifests itself in nature, which appears cruel and self consuming and, like our friend the buzzard, void of any real meaning – the sort of meaning a man might hope for against the odds, and keep the glimmer of it safe in a corner of his heart. But beyond the will, reckoned Schopenhauer, there was something else, something blissful, and that’s what artists feel, and strive to give expression to. That’s where the muse lives. Such glimpses of bliss are fickle though and, as I said before, she’s indiscriminate with her favours. She can point her finger at anyone, prince or pauper, articulate Bard or poor illiterate serf.

Speaking of princes and paupers, I’ve been reading an old biography I once wrote of the Wigan poet John Critchley Prince (1808-1866). Humble beginnings, self-educated and all that, born into grinding poverty not that far from here, and died the same way. His life was interesting, heroic in an unsung sort of way. It was also terribly hard and tragic, and a story without a happy ending. I wrote about Prince because I was interested in obscurity, and what drives men to create, even when no one is listening. He did find a little recognition along the way, but judged it toxic and irksome, so he destroyed it. Prince left behind several large volumes of poetry, but isn’t considered to be one of the greats – just a minor poet, as they say – but those volumes speak of the power of the muse, and how she can drive a man all his life to create a prolific body of work, regardless of its worth to anyone else, or to posterity. She possessed him through thick and thin, and in the end she turned him to drink, and then she killed him.

Then there’s the novel I’m reading, Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness”, and his description of the musicians in the pubs of Ireland’s west, in the early ’60’s, before electricity, and maybe for centuries before that. They were unassuming men, men who came together, and all forgotten now, but who for a night, for even just an hour of spontaneous reels, became perfect channels for the Muse, and made a music that the listeners carried in their hearts to the end of their days.

Danger, beauty, bliss. You’d better be careful courting her, but so long as you can arrive at that delicate understanding, your life will be all the better for having her in it, be it in poetry, art, the writing, or even just in the shapes of trees.

Speaking of muses, men are also prone to projecting them onto mortal females, imagining them timeless, ageless. Here’s one from fifty years ago:

Keep well, and thanks for listening.

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on harrock hillAfter a morning of torrential rain and gales, Saturday afternoon cleared to a bright, blustery, blue sky sort of day. It being a weekend, I didn’t fancy a walk anywhere near the honey-pot of the West Pennines. Instead, I kept it local, drove a short way along the little lanes that make up the somewhat dispersed community of Wrightington. Here, I parked up in a secret little lay-by and walked a network of muddy paths from there.

This is deepest, rural Lancashire, home to secret millionaires who live in tastelessly refurbished sandstone piles. They like to film your approach along the public ways with cameras on tall poles. I presume this is in case you’re of a mind to trespass, and make off with their possessions. I return the courtesy by photographing their ostentatious security, strictly for posterity of course. If they can film me without my permission, I can snap them. In a hundred years we’ll either be horrified people ever felt the need for such barbarity, or we’ll be laughing at such a quaint deterrent when they can zap you with lasers instead, and no questions asked.

There were two events of note this weekend, the most important and exciting being I had taken delivery of a second-hand lens for the camera, from Ebay – a longish zoom at a bargain price! It can be dodgy buying from an unknown seller online, so I wanted to try the lens before the two week no-quibble-returns thing ran out. The second event of course was an announcement from Number 10, regarding another, much heralded, national shut down. But as I parked the car amid the fall of leaves, and tied on my boots, the latter was just a rumour. If true, I suspected it would not be so severe as was being reported, especially since Lancashire is already under the most severe restrictions anyway. Personally, I was concerned only that we should have crystal clarity over the extent of our continued liberty to get out and walk.

The pubs and restaurants would be closed this time, I thought, and, thinking further, and with a long head, that would have everyone flocking back up to the West Pennines for something to do, so I’d not be venturing there in a while. I would have to find other venues, closer to home, like Harrock Hill for example, get my mugshot better known on those millionaires’ cameras.

As you move inland from the sea, say from Southport, the first hills you encounter are not the Western Pennines, but Parbold, Highmoor and Harrock, the latter famed for its ruined windmill. The southern loop of the Lancashire way passes by this fine old ruin, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find it, so much has the woodland grown up now and obscured it, obscuring also the views across the plain. It’s still a worthy destination for an afternoon though.

The lens was performing well. Zooming in certainly gives you a different perspective on things, isolating interesting bits of landscape, a stately group of trees for example, eliminating the clutter of telegraph poles and pylons. It’s interesting how we can colour a scene more by what we leave out, than what we leave in.

buzz 1As an older lens it’s a little slow to focus, but landscapes don’t move about much, so it’ll suit me fine. At one point a buzzard took off in a huff at my passing and I managed a shot of it as it slid across the meadow.  The auto-focus tracked it well, so it’s reasonably sharp, but I  fluffed the exposure – dark bird against a bright sky – so I didn’t capture it in all its beauty.

I’m back where I was in my twenties then, carrying a big zoom, having full-circled from the portability of point and shoots. It’s fine – I don’t climb many mountains now – and am older of course, yet the eye seems to be drawn by the same things: by a spill of light under a low sun, by a stand of ancient trees against the blue, by the shape of a hill, and the character expressed in the simple curve of a path.

I’ve lived around here all my life, toured these lanes by bicycle as a kid, by motorbike as a teen, and by car, but there are still nooks and crannies of surprise. The approaches to Harrock are plentiful from any direction, and amenable to circular exploration.

buzz 2I was still making my way down the hill when the PM’s announcement was rumoured to be due, so I thought I might have missed it. But it was delayed several times, and I was able to catch it in the early evening. I’m leaving off the partisanship here. We cannot turn back the clock, and we are where we are.

The bit I was listening for was:

You may only leave home for specific reasons, including: For education; For work, say if you cannot work from home; For exercise and recreation outdoors, with your household or on your own with one person from another household,…

That’s clear enough for me.

As for how far we can travel away from home for exercise – well I’m not sure about that bit. I’m guessing the tier three rules apply, and if not then I’ll apply them anyway, unless otherwise appraised – meaning it’s “advised” I’m confined to Lancashire, until further orders. I’ve no problem with that. Yes, I’m missing the Dales and the Lakes, but there’s still air enough to breathe here, and not that far from my doorstep. 

Think while walking, walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.

Frédéric Gros

 Goodnight all. Graeme out.

 

 

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yarrow res 6I was a little out of sorts watching the mixed weather today. I both wanted and did not want to go out. Do you ever feel like that? I knew if I didn’t go I’d regret it come tea time. And the forecast for the rest of the week looked even bleaker, so it was today, or not for a long time. Still, the energy, the spirit, the confidence was lacking.

There’s a bit of “C” word fatigue creeping in here, and I have temporarily lost my magnanimity over it. I’d vented some spleen on the blog last time, after reading up on the test and trace fiasco, and for which I apologize now. I know we’re all sick of it, but I’m feeling also an irrational sense of creeping doom.

Six weeks to retirement, after forty-three years, and then he goes and catches it from a door handle, and pops his clogs. I do not want that to be my story, the story my workmates share over a glum pint in the not too distant future and I trust the universe does not have such an unfortunate sense of humour. Maybe we were always going to end up here anyway. I don’t know.

Sure, it’s the black dog. I’ve been expecting him, regular as clockwork, these late October days. But when he comes, robbing me of the will for venturing further afield, I know I can usually coax myself around the Yarrow Reservoir. The little blue car is eager to agree, so off we go. She’ll say anything for a run out.

The best of autumn is a fragile thing. It’s sudden to mature, then gone overnight in a stormy squall. Then the trees are winter-bare, their fingers left clawing the air until spring. I’d say Anglezarke is approaching full colour right now. Another week and it’ll be gone, so I was glad I talked myself into it.

I can sleepwalk this circuit, did it once at dead of night by head-torch for some daft reason. It was probably October again, same black dog, and a certain desperation on my part.

So, here we are again, Parson’s Bullough, Allance Bridge, up Hodge Brow as far as Morrises, then cut along the meadows above the reservoir. The weather is still mixed, some squally rain, some low sun lighting up the rain like silver bullets. There’s a bit of hail too. And maybe it’s something about the scent of leaf mould and mud, but the air is a tonic. Then that hail is a timely slap in the face, telling me to pull myself together, that the earth is alive, and us with it, so wake up or you’ll miss all the fun!

yarrow res 4

We’re still a couple of hours from sunset, but in the squalls the light dips to dusk and the shadows deepen. As I come down to Dean Wood, I see a fox, a fine looking fellow, big and gingery, dodging the showers. He looks wily with his ears all a twitch – white tail-tip bobbing. There are sheep grazing the meadow, none of them paying much attention to me. But as one, they stop their munching and keep a weather eye on old foxy. He pays us no attention, slips like a ghost over the wall and into the dark of the wood – a passing encounter, but the kind of thing you remember long afterwards. Nature opens her door now and then, allows a brief glimpse of her more intimate secrets. It’s a side of the world we can all too easily wipe out without even knowing it’s there.

The last fox I saw was an old vixen. It was dusk, one fine summer’s eve in Eskdale, many years ago. She’d come tiptoeing across the path behind me, thinking I wouldn’t notice. But it was that kind of evening, an electric stillness about it, and I’d felt her in the hairs on the back of my neck, and turned. Both of us froze for a moment, each staring into the other’s eyes. She’d looked hungry, and thin, I thought, tail all a-droop. She was afraid, but only for a split second, then judged me harmless and tiptoed on.

And speaking of foxes, it was this time last year, I saw the hunt, on the road up by Parson’s Bullough. I’d parked up there as is my habit, and was tying on my boots. Then the road was awash with the clippety-clop of horse and the baying of hounds – indeed, a veritable sea of hounds, and frisky too. It’s a colourful tradition, those fine Lords and Ladies, or at least their latter-day equivalent – on the trail of blood. I judge public opinion is mostly set agin ’em these days, but they’re hanging on to their pinks in spite of that, waiting for a change in the law. They were pleasant enough in passing, the master-of-hounds even tipping his shiny horn to the neb of his hat in salute. To scruffy old me. Imagine? But a frisky pack, blood-lusted, has been known to tear a man’s ear off in their enthusiasm, and I was glad when they’d gone. It is of course illegal to hunt foxes in England now, but it doesn’t stop the creatures from occasionally being torn to shreds by accident.

yarrow re 5

More rain, more hail on the return leg, then a sudden drying and a brilliant, if transient, sun. It slants low through the gold and copper-hung canopy like a revelation. The little roads hereabouts are buckling for want of repair. They’re puddled deep and slick with wet, gleaming now in a passing strobe of light, strewn here and there with mud and fallen branches churned to mulch.

A generous amount of rain these preceding weeks has topped up the reservoirs to bursting, so the spillway of the Yarrow is all a-roar. It’s a small river, the Yarrow. Once released from the reservoir, and twelve miles downstream, it runs not a few hundred yards by my house. How long for that white water leaping the spillway right now to make it all the way by my door? Days, is it? Weeks? Months? Play Pooh-Sticks with it, shall we?  I toss that imaginary stick into waters, black as stout. The small blue car is waiting, turn the key,… sounds eager for the challenge.

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winter hillTier three Covid restrictions, now – what do they mean to me? Nothing more than I seem to have been living with for most of the year, except for a brief respite in the summer when the brakes came off. But now, with the death-rate creeping up again, things look set for the foreseeable, while not ruling out the possibility of a handbrake turn. No bother. I’ve a weeks’ leave in front of me, but it’s also half-term, so I’d not be travelling out much anyway – kids and congestion and all that – though I would have liked another trip to the Dales, before we see the year out. Unlikely now, I know. Still we make do.

After a morning of torrential rain, the skies cheered up, so the small blue car and I made the short hop from the bleakly hopeless flat of the Lancashire plain – in various stages of unprecedented flood now – to the moody Western Pennines. Here, we parked up by Parson’s Bullough. There were times in the summer when you couldn’t squeeze a car in here, those long, hot, Covid days and nights, but, tier three or not, things seem to have drifted back to normal, everyone either at work by day or cramming the boozers by night.

I’m out with the camera today, looking for some magic, looking for the faery, in a sense – though not literally, of course. By the camera, I mean “the camera”, an APS-C format Nikon DSLR with a medium zoom, which makes for a serious carry, and which also means it gets left behind more often than not. But it also offers the maximum in photographic potential, given the prevailing light today, and the landscape.

Odd, I’m seven weeks out from retirement now and wondering if this’ll constitute my new routine – you know? Lie in a bit with coffee and a book, then early lunch, and out with the camera, unless I’m travelling further afield – Covid permitting? If so, it’s something to be looking forward to, and I can scarcely believe it’s within grasp. I’ve been digging this tunnel for forty-three years and I’d hate for it to collapse on me at this point. Thus I approach with caution.

Anyway, leaving the car behind, I slip up the hill by Parson’s Bullough, already with a bothersome tail. It’s a couple of off-duty coppers. I can tell from their conversation – an over-loud recounting of a recent, dramatic massed arrest and drugs-bust one of them had the pleasure of participating in. There was much bravado and mimicking the accents of the bad-guys. I sat down to let them pass. Much as I respect our boys and girls in blue, they were disturbing of the peace within a quarter mile radius, to say nothing of being indiscrete.

winter hill treeThere are a couple of trees I admire here, very photogenic, I think. I try a few shots, but the sun is shy and the light is flat. I have better luck with a shot of Winter Hill, the light hitting it just right of a sudden. There are ugly transmitter masts on Winter Hill which should ruin the shot, but they’ve been there for ever now, and we’d probably complain if they were ever pulled down.

Then I’m skirting the top of Lead Mine’s Clough, where I encounter a proper photographer with the same camera as mine, but his is set up on a tripod, and the long zoom is pointing at me as I approach. Am I his human interest within the landscape, I wonder? What with himself and the tripod, he’s blocking the path, and he only steps aside as an after-thought.

“Hope I didn’t spoil your shot,” I tell him.

He mumbles something incoherent in reply, refuses eye contact. He’s not a conversationalist, and neither am I, really, so I leave him to it.

I’ve not been out with a tripod for years – can’t be bothered with them any more. I recall I once carried a sturdy old Cullman on many a hike in the Lakes, but I was in my twenties then and pack-weight wasn’t a thing. I still have some of those shots, crisp black and whites from an Olympus OM10. Sadly, that gem of a camera was stolen from my car, but they left the Cullman behind. I still miss that OM10.

With a tripod you set up camp in a particular spot, and you wait on the light. It’s like fishing, I suppose. It slows the whole process of photography down, makes you more mindful, and of course that tripod grants you extra crispness if you’re shooting in poor light, and with a slow lens, or you’re fiddling about with high dynamic range stuff. Myself though, I prefer to shoot on the fly, otherwise it slows the walk down too much, interrupts the perambulating meditation. Plus of course, if it’s the faery you’re after, they never come out if you’re waiting for them. You only ever glimpse them in passing, and out the corner of your eye. Modern lenses usually come with image stabilization now anyway, and that lets you get away with a lot you couldn’t have imagined twenty years ago. So, tripod? No thanks.

2ZSctI0EIt’s a familiar circuit, this one, Parson’s Bullough and Lead Mine’s Clough, a little detached from the more popular West Pennine routes, but packed with interest and, even after a lifetime, it has not exhausted all its photographic possibilities for me. There’s  always something different, a different light, a different mood. I manage around thirty-six shots, the length of an old 35mm roll, then cull them when I’m home to just three that are worth a second look. Sometimes the camera sees more than you do. Sometimes it doesn’t see what you see, and that can be frustrating, but it gifts you the unexpected, which is one of the rewards of photography for me.

Coming back down through the autumnal-shaded vale, I overtake an old guy and his lady. He’s got the stiffness of gait of a man in his eighties who is contemptuous of his years, and would rather die on a hill than slumped in front of the telly. I note good-quality boots, and mountain jackets. They are veterans of the high places, this pair. It’s in their weather-worn faces and in their eyes. And it’s in their smile as we greet in passing. God willing I’ll be that guy in another twenty years, aching hips perhaps, stiff knees, fragile back, and whatever passes for the latest in amateur photographic technology slung across my back.

But definitely no tripod.

It had begun a dour, wet day, but as I return to the little blue car, the sun is slanting through autumn gold, and glittering from the surface of the Yarrow Reservoir. In company with many, my horizons have been somewhat narrowed this year, but when you can’t see far, the rewards are to be found more in the details of what’s under your nose.

Keep well.

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IMG_2745As I sit here in this garden, staring out at the sea, I realise with some disappointment the perfection of the world can only ever be approximated by the descriptive eye. Blue does not describe the sea today, nor any day, nor grey nor green. It is too approximate. The fancy writer can borrow from the artist’s pallet, attempt words like cerulean, indigo or cobalt, but these suppose the reader is familiar with such flowery synonyms and anyway they similarly fall short of being definitive. We also have teal, turquoise, beryl, utramarine, aquamarine. I take a chance on Beryl, but find it comes in two shades – one blue green, like I imagine a clear tropical ocean, and the other closer to sapphire and how I imagine the cold Atlantic on a sunlit winter’s day.

This is a warmer blue, a mid-blue, I suppose, but threaded with sinewy bands of a paler hue, tending towards – all right – towards aquamarine. These bands are also of a finer, smoother texture than the wide expanse of mid-blue which is finely stippled with the grey of wavelets. But in the time I have taken to describe it, it has already changed, a pool of something paler in the broad sweep of the bay opens up as the waters steadies, and the tide slackens. It will be different again in a moment, and in a minute, and in an hour as the light changes and this July afternoon deepens towards tea time. There will never be a moment or day when it is the same as it is now, this moment in time.

On the horizon, gliding south, seemingly on the line between sea and sky, there is a coaster, long and low and white, a handful of pale pixels in the great scheme of things. The sea, this same sea, will be different out there as it butts up against the clanking, rust streaked hull, a different dynamic to the passage of a ship and the turn of water and the way it catches light.

A writer might as well just say the sea was blue, or perhaps grey, if it was that sort of day. More useful is to accept the transience of the moment, its indescribable nature, and instead to read the sea for emotion.

Warm and languid, that’s the North sea on this sunny afternoon, under a long hot, clear skied bake of sun. Just now a pleasure cruiser out of Scarborough, bobs into view. It’s white, with Britannia bunting hung from fore and aft masts, Union Jacks fluttering. It has a jolly, perky feel about it. But when we feel the scene we have to realise we are seeing ourselves reflected in it and that once again we are failing to see the beauty of the world as it truly is, with acceptance and abandon.

I have never seen as many varieties of birds as I have this afternoon, just sitting here in the sun. I have a handful of names for birds but my vocabulary, such as it is is entirely inadequate. I resist the camera. I do not want to capture them for later classification. I try not to want to know their names in case it robs them of their  beauty.

And then we have the scent. To a former anosmic, the reintroduction of scent into the world is a dramatic thing, nothing short of revelatory, and one simply must know the source of every scent as if greedy to restore lost memory. It has a sweetness to it, like a freshly mown lawn, but drier somehow, a little dusty, damp and warm – though how scent can be dusty I do not know. It’s the wheat, I think, the vast expanse of it, like a straw coloured foreground bowl that contains the sea. The wheat is stagnant, stupefied by the heat, animated only by squadrons of wood pigeon that over-fly it in number. It is hauntingly aromatic – haunting in the way it triggers memories of childhood summer dusks at play in harvest meadows, memories forgotten until now, in passing.

Four thirty and the shadows lengthen to a few yards. The eastern face of the house affords cool and shade now. And though I continue to write, to scan my lines, I am not thinking of anything, desiring nothing but the eternal elongation of this moment.

But I suppose I shall have to be thinking soon about what I want to make for tea.

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