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dovecrag

Dovedale

We were later than we should have been, the small blue car and I, slipping over the Kirkstone, already midmorning and by now meeting the tourist coaches lumbering up from Patterdale. We met one at the Inn, at that bit where the tarmac narrows by the Struggle down to Ambleside, a giant German tour-whale, incumbents all filming my humble passing. Thus I imagine myself now immortalised, part of the scenery, a silver fox in an old MX5. There are worse ways to be remembered, I suppose,…

Exotic it must seem, the Kirkstone Pass, to a continental European, as exotic as the Lauterbrunnen sounds to me, a northern Brit, still a die-hard European, though chastened now by this eternal BREXIT thing. All is relative,… or so they say. How many times over the Kirkstone now? Must be into the hundreds. Familiarity in this case though clearly does not breed contempt, for there is still the sense, as Patterdale opens ahead of the tumbling little road, of a spiritual homecoming.

I am here to climb Dove Crag.

So,… Cow Bridge at 11:45, and we pull into the last parking spot. It’s more than we deserve at this hour, so it’s fated, reserved for us by Providence perhaps and therefore a good omen. It’s a blistering hot day, mid-June, wide open sky of Cerulean blue, but a distinct lack of air, and a surplus of humidity. I’m thinking it’ll be better at altitude, but that’s a couple of hours away, the mad dogs and Englishmen hours, and I’m not convinced I’m going to make it that far, me feeling old and drained and unpracticed with my mountain mojo these days. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I lost mine a long time ago and, trust me, Dove Crag is not the best place to try to find it again.

But still,….

dovecrag2

Dove Crag

It’s grown famous of late, Dove Crag, on account of the Priest’s Hole, a slot of a cave, high on the face of the crag, indeed this must now be the most famous secret spot in Britain after being on the telly and gaining mention in travel articles for the urban selfie hungry. I have no desire to further advertise it here, except to say it’s also a dangerous place to get to, and I had no desire to join the surge of casualties, including fatalities, in recent years, making pilgrimage. We think of England as a cotton wool cosseted place, health and safety numpty’s tut-tutting everywhere and always someone to sue with our ambulance chasing no win no fee solicitors, if we so much as stub our toe. But the mountains aren’t like that, even English ones.

Anyway, a promising start was made with a glorious opening stroll along the shores of Brothers’ Water, where, I swear, a pair of sweetly rounded ladies were skinny dipping and giggling joyously like nymphs – I admit I may already have been hallucinating in anticipation of hardships higher up the fell. But even without the water-nymphs the approach to Dovedale is seductive in its loveliness, gentle on the legs too, at least as far as the first of the falls. The falls are a good place to gather breath and wits, because beyond them the going is much harder, and it has a darker vibe about it as the fells close in and the ferns give way to rock.

I seemed to have no power in the legs at all. At the first of the falls, reduced now to a trickle by drought, I paused a good long while, eyes already sweat-stung, hat dripping, shirt-soaked and my head befuddled by a cloud of horse-flies. One of them got me on the back of the hand which provided little by way of encouragement. The pack felt impossibly heavy with weatherproof gear, unlikely to be needed, but foolish to leave behind.

I had barely the spring to get back on my feet, and my legs felt like they were not my own, my feet pointing backwards and about as sure footed as a drunkard. I was encouraged though by vague memories of other walks, where the legs slowly warm and you find your pace, and the breath to keep you going. I stopped a lot on the way, drank a lot of water, talked to myself.

In Wainwright’s day the last bit onto the shoulder of Dove Cag was all loose rock and scree – must have been a nightmare of a pull, and Wainwright, this prolific pipe-smoker, never seeming short of breath. Now its a precipitous, spiralling staircase of set stone and all beautifully crafted to blend into the natural tumble of rock. I was just about able to haul myself up it, and then it was on to the summit, where all was dry as bones and not a soul for miles.

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Dove crag summit

Normally the legs would recover now, and I’d be able to pick up the pace, regain some spring, but Dove Crag had given me a good hiding in the heat, and it was plain it didn’t matter how long I rested by that cairn, I’d be finishing the day on what was left, and it wasn’t much. I’d passed this way a few times before, on circuits of the Fairfield Horseshoe, but those days were long gone, like the youth who’d casually burned the miles in gale force winds and horizontal rain. No,… I was never so robust or bold in the fells, and any of that this afternoon and I was going to die up here. But the day was utterly stunning in its clarity, like a near death vision of an idealised afterlife – and all the fells gathered round of course, their names returning to me as I decoded their profiles from dusty archives. I’m  sure I’m not the only ageing fell walker to have dreamed of a post popped-clogg world like this and the legs to do it justice.

I headed eastwards along the Fairfield route, a fine section of breathtaking views, probably the best weather I’ve ever had up there, and the mountains catching the sun, slanting sleepy shadows into the deep dales and the ravines and raising something of the old mojo magic of the Lakes for me. But I had miles to go and feet for very few of them, and just another good swallow of water left in the bottle. Perhaps I amplify the hardship, but I was painfully aware one slip-up with navigation bringing me down into the wrong valley, and I’d nothing in reserve to correct it. But on such a clear day it would be hard to miss the path for Patterdale.

brotherswater

Patterdale

I skirted the summit crown of Little Hart Crag, too far gone to waste what bit of breath I’d got on petty peak bagging. Instead I gained the gently undulating ridge towards High Hartsop Dodd, set my head to the task. This was supposed to be a four-hour round, according to the guides. It was going to take me five. But who’s counting? Here, as you crest the last rise, the tip of the fell points like a prehistoric arrow-head down the length of Patterdale, Brothers’ Water blue as the sky amid the multifaceted green of the dale, and the heart swells with delight that there can be such places as beautiful as this, and surely I have known and loved it for more than just the one life-time, for it to have such a profound affect upon the senses.

Yes, it was worth the walk, and the sweat, to say nothing of the emptying of myself to see that view – that last gift of the way before the way plummeted with a brutal steepness to the valley bottom, a twisting slalom of a route, hard on the knees and jelly-legs. Thus I descended like a fragile centenarian, alpine sticks deployed Zimmer fashion, progress slow and cautious. I could see where the car was parked, miles away; I felt it might as well have been on the moon.

The water nymphs had gone, sadly, when, with feet on fire, I made my way back along the shore of Brothers Water, pausing to allow myself a moment of respite where they had bathed themselves. Divested of boots and socks and paddling out gingerly over the pebbles, that blessed water gave me back the mile still remaining to the car, and I returned at last to my reward: that post-walk mindful calm sunk deep into the bones.

It was a memorable day, as all walking days are in the Lakes, and a triumph too, of sorts, but also a reminder of the advance of years and how the fells demand a high degree of fitness, a toughness in the gut, a resilience in the legs, to say nothing of leathered feet. I can accept the ultimate defeat of advancing years, am sanguine about it in many ways, but as I sat on the terrace of the Brother’s Water Inn, sipping on a cold Lime and Soda, first light of evening coming on, I swear Dove Crag was smiling, telling that time was not yet near, telling me also well done, lad, and Dylan Thomas, whispering in my ear, you know,… that line about not going gently into the good night!

She can be a stern mistress, this fell country of ours, but I know of nothing, no other corner of England more inspirational, more building of self-confidence, nor more rewarding to the spirit. Yes, a tough old walk for one grown so lazy of late, also a wake-up call, and a promise that I’ll not leave it so long next time.

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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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penyghent from horton irThere were three events at Horton in Ribblesdale on Saturday. I’m not sure what they were exactly but I assume each involved a lot of boots scrambling over the Dales’ three peaks – Penyghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. It also meant the carparks were pretty much filled up by mid-morning. It was a relief to find somewhere to leave the car on the overflow.

You can usually see Penyghent from Horton. It resembles the prow of a mighty ship, sailing a rolling green ocean of moor over Brackenbottom, but not today. It was in a strop over something, possibly all the attention it was getting. There was a riot outside the cafe, start of the three peaks route, an army of excited children, hundreds of them, squealing at a pitch fit to burst eardrums while their minders bellowed instructions. An optimistic notice on the wall urged a more respectful tone in consideration of neighbours. I hope none of them were trying to lie in that morning, let alone nursing hangovers.

Better get cracking then. The last thing I wanted was to get stuck at the back of that lot. I managed a ten minute start before I heard them swarming up the track behind me. It was a more strenuous ascent of the hill than I’m used to then, one lacking the luxuries I normally allow myself of lots of pauses to admire the view and take photographs. I would have let them pass, but there were other armies of pixies, elves and dwarves all mustering in the rear and it would have taken the entire day.

The route ahead was also very busy, in particular there were jams of jittery folk on all the craggy bits below the summit plateau, and then a walking day procession along the paved way to the trigpoint. More squealing children awaited my arrival there, while a party of crusty old curmudgeons cracked open a whisky bottle and splashed out generous measures of amber comfort. It was an eclectic gathering for sure, ages ranging from five to eighty five, the atmosphere one of festival, of celebration. There is no other hill like Penyghent on a weekend afternoon.

Starting out overcast, the weather had turned a bit edgy, a light breeze at valley level stiffening to a bitter easterly. I crouched on the leeward side of the wall, some distance away from the merriment. The wind was blowing clean through it, chilling the sweat on my back, so I used the sack as a windbreak and caught my breath at last – long slow breaths, filling my lungs with that musty, muddy, metallic air of the high places.

Then the army of elves, pixies and dwarves caught up, and the summit was lost to madness as they over-ran it. Time to move on. I pressed, squished and excused my way through the crowd to get anywhere near the stile, then queued for my turn to get over it. Ahead of me, crocodile after crocodile of three peakers headed west into the wind-blown mist, jackets flapping like lubberly spinnakers all along the well trodden way to Whernside. How a mountain can take such punishment as this, day in day out and remain beautiful, I don’t know. If you like your mountains quiet, and Penyghent’s still on your bucket list, come mid week, term-time, and come early.

Three Peakers are a mixed bunch and, yes, they make me grumble. It’s this apparent blindness to the metaphysical dimension of the hills, for how can they be tuned in to that when half of them have phones glued to their ears? They come to do battle, while for me a walk is more of a cooperative endeavour between oneself, the mood of the hill, and the weather. Still, I do admire their grit. I didn’t follow them, I headed north instead, along the line of the wall into a high moorland wilderness, towards the more sublime, summitless solitude of Plover Hill.

Plover Hill is Penyghent’s quieter, less intrusive neighbour. If we include it in our day’s outing it makes for a more significant leg-stretcher, the round from Horton being then a shade under ten miles. It also affords time for a more peaceful contemplation of the Dales. I did not meet a soul again until crossing the three peaks route once more, above Horton.

Conservation work has improved the descent from Plover Hill, which had begun to scar quite badly, recent rock-paving bringing us safely down to the broad valley that carries the Foxup road, a lonely, pathway, linking the villages of Foxup and Horton. If you’re looking to put some miles between yourself and the next person – even on a busy summer’s weekend in the Dales, Plover Hill and the Foxup Road are a good place to start.

Back at Horton, feet on fire by now, I was ready for a brew but the cafe was still besieged by screaming pixies. They looked too fresh to be returning, but couldn’t be setting off so late in the day, the whole three peaks round having to be completed in under 12 hours if you want your badge, and rather them than me, I thought. I gave them a wide berth, retrieved the car from the sheep plopped meadow, and drove to Settle for a more restful pot of tea and a toasted teacake at the Naked Man.

Early retirement from the rat-race features ever greater in my plans these days as the light at the end of my personal tunnel of captivity grows brighter. I have wondered about the Dales villages, of downsizing, of nesting up in an old stone cottage within sight and sound and easy access to these beautiful hills. It’s an idle fancy for now. I’m probably better where I am, just driving in as needs be, but if I did decide to do it, I wouldn’t be moving to Horton in Ribblesdale.

Simply too many boots on the ground these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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binocularsHave you noticed how we label things in an attempt to understand them? It’s not too bad with the simpler nouns -like “stone” perhaps: Stone, small, round, and maybe if we’re more knowledgeable about stones we can add other label to include categories like: basalt or granite. And thus, gradually, we come to understand the stone. But when it comes to people our understanding is often simplistic to the point of uselessness, because the labels are too small for the essay we each deserve, yet this doesn’t prevent others from attaching those simplistic monosyllabic labels to us.

My schooldays were made difficult by disruptive children in class. They sparked chaos, turning the teacher’s faces beetroot red with rage – a rage that was turned on all of us, both innocent and guilty. I don’t know what makes kids behave like that, other than stupidity. Nowadays I guess they’d be labelled as suffering from something like ADHD. Diagnosis is made via a tickbox of responses, and thereby we create the illusion of an understanding, of a “category” of person. The kids are still disruptive, still cause nightmares for the sensitives ones – who could possibly also be labelled with any number of acronymic anxiety disorders. Drugs can be prescribed for categories of suffering – downers to stupefy the violent , uppers to make the passive ones less shy. But is this really what we want?  And why am I harping on about my schooldays when what I want to talk about is binoculars?

Yes, binoculars!

When I go for a walk in the wilds I carry a pair of lightweight binoculars. Other walkers will often stop and ask me if I’ve seen any interesting birds. This happened twice today, during just a few hours’ walk up Great Hill in the Western Pennines.

I had seen no interesting birds – just a couple of crows, and no offence to crows but they are rather too common to be labelled as interesting. Birds are a feature of any walk of course and I do like to tell them apart, but I’m not a bird watcher. I carry binoculars for another reason, which is:

From the summit of Great Hill, I saw the Lake District fifty miles away, ditto The Yorkshire Dales. I spotted a new cairn raised on Darwen Moor, or possibly an old cairn grown much bigger – a thing that warrants further exploration. Conversely I saw the cairn on Round Loaf was tumbled flat, prompting a note in my diary to go and build it up again. I saw the giant Wind Turbines on Scout Moor with their arms arrested in the late afternoon sunlight, their leading edges seared with fire. I saw the coastline, from Liverpool to Preston taking on an amber glow. I saw the curious brown pall of an atmospheric inversion, running the length of the Ribble Valley, and wondered, in an era of de-industrialisation where the smog could be coming from- just traffic, I suppose?

Yes, binoculars add another dimension to the appreciation of any high altitude walk – even Great Hill’s modest 1200 feet . I get to enjoy both the near and the far distance in equal clarity. But how to explain all of that to the particularly inquisitive, woolly hatted gentleman I met today:

“Is that what you do then? Birds?”

No, that’s not quite what I do. What do I do then? Why the damned binoculars, as if it’s anybody else’s business? If I must wear a simple label for the day, then let it be “walker”. But just because we have a diagnosis, and therefore a cure for the curiosity of passers by, it does not mean we grant them any more of an understanding about what’s really going on, about what or who we really are. I might also have said, writer, since I was also unconsciously gathering material for this piece. Romantic is also a good label for me since I always at least partially envision the land through my imagination. But this complicates things, deepens them too much for passing conversation.

Returning from Great Hill I was accosted by a noisy bunch of lads who looked like they might have been the disruptive type at school. They each held by the leash a killer dog.

“Seen any interesting birds mate?” asked one.

His associates tittered approvingly.

“Not many interesting birds up here, lads,” I replied.

Jocular titters all round – the feathered variety is not what they meant, but I was too slow to realise. Either way my reply sufficed.

Perhaps I should leave the binoculars at home next time, or hide them in my bag and spare the tiresome ritual of repeated explanation? Or just pretend to be a twitcher.

No, we are what we are, and that needs no explaining, or excuses. To anyone.

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suliven2

Suliven, Sutherland, UK

I still think of Suliven. It’s a mountain to be seen with one’s own eyes before it can be adequately believed in. I saw it thirty years ago, had the passion for it then, but no realistic opportunity of getting my boots on it. My companions possessed no mountain form, and were only kind enough to humour my obsession sufficient to allow me time to get within visual range.

We had driven from Ullapool after a sojourn on the edge of the midnight sun, then north, to Sutherland and the little harbour town of Lochinver. There, I walked inland, along a narrow scrap of road and I gazed at Suliven, confirming to my satisfaction the reality of its remarkable existence. Then I had to dive out of the way as a pick-up truck came at me, clipped me with its cab mirror. The mirror broke, but I was unhurt, spared injury by my aluminium water bottle which took the hit for me, bearing ever afterwards an impressive dent.

The truck didn’t stop.

I’m certain, in the long ago, Romantics were not a target for extermination. There were no guardian trolls tearing up Wordsworth’s first in-situ drafts of Daffodils by Ullswater’s choppy shores, nor hunting him down atop Helvellyn with their fowling pieces while he sought only to settle for inspiration. Perhaps he had better protection, contracted out among the fates by his formidable muse. Anyway, thus it was, and with a certain ignominy, I left Lochinver without so much as breaking bread. I returned south then, to several decades of the whirlwind of life and did not return.

I do not lament our estrangement.

Suliven exists for me still as part of a tangible reality, a phenomenon to which I have borne witness, yet also as something on the edge of perception, therefore inhabiting a liminal zone, one to which I am forbidden entry as a mortal. And all things are relative: for the inhabitants of Lochinver, to say nothing of mad bastards in pick-up trucks, Suliven is as ubiquitous as the wind and the mist, and the rain and the bog, to say nothing of the sheep ticks that infest those wastes, and whose parasitic presence is difficult to interpret metaphorically in any way other than negative.

The far-away then is no guarantor of wise teaching and, since the landscape of myth is always viewed in part, through the eye of imagination, my own hills have had as much to say over the years as I imagined Suliven might back then. It’s all a question of interpretation.

To experience myth is to walk the path in company with, and under the protection of the faery, or the Gods, however you like to phrase it. One visits the territory, the village, the town, the safe valley of human habitation, a place that is never-the-less inspired by the transcendent vista of the hill beyond the last farm gate. The hill is Olympus rising assertively above the mundane. One fetches up in the vale, contemplates the hill from afar, measures ones mortality in the presentation of light and shadow on its flank. Then we climb and experience the path as it unfolds, interpret the course and the discourse of the hill before returning, footsore, then to be restored at the well-spring of human hospitality,…

To tea and crumpets.

But I’m talking of another hill, now, way, way south of the Norseman’s Sutherland. I’m talking of Ingleborough, in fact, in the Yorkshire Dales, and of the homely little village of Clapham where those crumpets were so aromatic after a day on the hill, they were surely delivered from the ovens of a divine refectory. I exaggerate of course, as is my wont, fashioning a moody purple from the clear blue of a benign autumn sky, and the scent of a crumpet – oh, but they were sweet and aromatic! Also, so far as I’m aware, there is no Faery-lore in the Dales, but as a mixed descendent of the Irish Celt, and of the British Setantii (according to Ptolemy),… I find the shee tend to travel with me.

Ingleborough has been a good friend over the years, and like all good friends it’s never afraid to give me a good talking to. Not long ago, amid a ferociously inclement turn of weather, it tested every step of my wobbly ascent, then tipped me over a good mile from the top and said: you’re losing it, mate. You’re no longer that twenty five year old who beheld Suliven and dared to dream of climbing it. I’d let my fitness slip below the level of aspiration. All hills worth their salt are the same in this regard, demanding of the pilgrim a certain circumspection for their ardours.

So I’ve been working on it.

The older you get, the greater prize the hills will promise you, but the harder you have to work at it. Today I climbed Ingleborough again. It was a clear day, a warm day – no horizontal rain this time – and the hill was glad to receive me without much persuasion. And there, by the summit mound, I settled to make libation to the gods with Vimto and Kitkat, while a large family – grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren, settled beside me in pointy party hats to celebrate a birthday, with cake! Well, this is Yorkshire after all, and anything can happen, though it must be said, in my experience, unexpected happenings in Yorkshire tend to be positive ones.

I do still think of Suliven, but to be honest, you can keep it. I’m certainly in no hurry to return. I’ve plenty of hills to call my own. Ingleborough’s just one of them, and not a single troll in a pick-up truck to hit and run me down.

Or maybe these days I just have better protection.

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Great Hill, West Pennine Moors

Great Hill, West Pennine Moors

I was sitting in the cross shelter on the top of Great Hill on Friday, sharing the view and passing the time of day with another walker. He was in his late middle age, what I’d describe as a robust pedestrian and a good sort. He was knowledgeable about the area and about the bird-life. I’ve never met him before and I knew him for all of ten minutes, but we got on well. Such encounters with strangers on hilltops are not unusual. The mere fact that you’re there means you already have a lot in common.

It’s a very beautiful spot, Great Hill, in a low moorland windswept sort of way. It’s about 1250 feet high, and miles away from the roads or any form of habitation. There were larks a plenty and a couple of curlew plaintively piping. To the north, we could see as far as Pendle and beyond to the Dales. Westwards we had the Lancashire plain and the sea. To the south lay Winter Hill, all of it crisply delineated in the mid-morning sunshine, and shimmering over the long moorland causeway known as Spitler’s Edge. This is a very beautiful patch of territory, otherwise known as the Western Pennines, and not twenty minutes drive from where I live, also not twenty minutes drive for a couple of million other souls as well, and unfortunately suffering from the stress of it.

Suddenly my new found companion advised me never to be in the area after 9:00 pm, that there were far too many unsavoury goings on these days. If it wasn’t boy racers killing themselves and others on the narrow moorland roads, he said, it was people up to goodness knows what on the public carparks.

“You know,” he said. “Those unsavoury parties and such-like.”

He explained those “unsavoury parties” were the reason the Higher House car-park at Rivington is now locked at night by a sophisticated electric rolling gate – or at least it was until the trolls came up and stole the solar panel that charged its batteries. Another car-park in the area, he informed me, is now padlocked at all times – no one can use it, day or night.

With a worldly sigh, he set his hat upon his head and bade me good morning. It was a curious encounter, possibly daemonic, and one that’s had me thinking ever since.

great hill summit

As I watched him ambling away, I reflected on other stories I’d heard about these nefarious goings on, and how they are increasingly interfering with people’s innocent enjoyment of the countryside. I suppose I take it personally because it’s my back yard and I grew up treasuring what it has to offer – its beauty, its wide open space, its antiquarian oddities, and its walking of course – so a part of me does resent this rather rude intrusion of what I call the grey world and its creeping ugliness.

It spreads like litter.

And of course the West Pennines isn’t the only area under siege by such unsavoury goings on.

Imagine:

An elderly lady and her husband drive to a local beauty-spot. There’s a pleasant car-park under the trees, a shimmering lake in the distance, a shapely green hill rising beyond. It’s all sunshine and blue skies – a midday week, about lunchtime. They park their vehicle, unpack a picnic and are about to pour coffee from the flask when a man walks by in a pin-stripe suit, carrying his trousers, neatly folded, over his arm – only his shirt tails to spare his modesty.

They used to bring their children here for picnics on Sundays, they’d go walking and playing hide and seek in the woods. It’s a public car-park, a handy public loo, but unknown to them it’s also become what the police have unofficially designated a public sex area, in this case mainly for gays, looking for anonymous encounters. The street smart call it “Cottaging”. The police call it a public nuisance, but don’t want to be seen as homophobic, so unless someone gets hurt or there are drugs involved it’s mostly tolerated.

Then imagine:

A young woman takes her dog out for a walk, early evening. It’s another car-park, another beauty spot. She’s followed by a man who begins making lewd remarks, so she beats a hasty retreat, understandably in some distress. As she drives away he calls her stuck up for not wanting to have sex with him. When she calls the police, she’s told the area is a well known “Dogging” location, Dogging being a euphemism for what might be loosely termed public sex. People drive for miles to these spots and rendezvous for anonymous intercourse, this time of the heterosexual variety.

The young woman didn’t know all this of course, not being familiar with that sort of thing.

In an attempt to curb the problem, and I’m sorry dear Doggers and Cottagers, but you are a problem, the council locks the carparks at night, unless they run out of money and can’t afford to pay a warden, in which case they simply shut the car-parks altogether and the amenity is denied to others who merely want to walk or picnic and generally enjoy the greenery and the scenery on their doorstep. But because that green is within spitting distance of a conurbation, the grey tide washes up a thick line of unsavoury detritus.

I’m not sure how these things take hold, nor how the innocent among us are supposed to know that lay-by or car-park where we habitually leave our car of a summer’s eve, while we take a couple of hours out across the moors and enjoy the sunset, is now a public sex area. It’s a very British phenomenon – apparently – this dogging thing, but it’s all rather sordid too, and though it’s not like me to moralise, I really don’t like the thought of it in my back yard.

Of course, it’s not a good idea, sex with strangers, but even less so with lots of strangers. It’s a sure way to catch an STD for a start, possibly a fatal one, but that never stopped anyone from doing it, so moralising and pointing out the public health implications is never going to solve it. The other problem is it also creates bad feeling among the locals – these immoral urbanites travelling out to our rural idyll to perform their beastly functions. And there’s a resentment too that the innocent ones had better be locked indoors, with the curtains drawn by dusk, because there’ll soon be trolls about and there’s never a burly copper around to see them off.

Anyway, I came down from Great Hill, returning via the woods at Brinscall, then along the Goit to White Coppice. I saw more curlew and lark, heard cuckoo and woodpecker, and found what I believe to be an unmarked standing stone, though possibly a Victorian facsimile. It was a beautiful day, a pleasant walk, a beautiful area, an area well known to me, an area well known also, apparently, for dogging.

standing stone

As an interesting, though not entirely unrelated aside, today I took the good Lady Graeme out in the MX5. (We might as well enjoy it while the sun shines) We drove to Saint Annes on Sea and had a picnic by Fairhaven Lake. We used to go there a lot with the children, but today’s journey was considerably enhanced by travelling in an open top car. In fact it was a delight, and it was also wonderful to see my teacher wife smiling again after weeks of stress during the build up to yet another school inspection. On our return, my good lady, one eye on the wing mirror, asked me if I was aware the car behind the car behind us was a police car.

I was not.

I wasn’t speeding, but that aggressive looking Hyundai cruiser was suddenly an intimidating presence and, driving that MX5 I felt like I had a target on my back. I have been indicted for my carelessness before (SP30) – there were extenuating circumstances, but I didn’t argue them. I have also been falsely accused by a traffic officer of using a mobile phone when driving. I was not using it, and was able to prove to his satisfaction I had not been using it, but was given a stern warning for using it anyway. I was also once stopped and asked, with blistering sarcasm, if indicators were optional on my car, sir. It’s unfortunate but my only contact with the boys and girls in blue is when I’m behind the wheel of a car, and my confidence in them is tainted by that experience. I recognise it as a neurosis, and could perhaps use some desensitisation therapy, but I no longer feel protected and served. Instead I feel vulnerable.

So, if you were the traffic officer two cars behind when a blue Mazda MX5 pulled into the petrol station at the Warton filling station this afternoon, I admit I wasn’t really pulling in for petrol. I was merely wanting you off my tail because you were spoiling my day out with my wife. And by the way, did you know, as I write there are people committing acts of public indecency in nearby beauty spots, frightening the life out of old ladies and young women, and horses too?

What’s that? You do?

Clearly one is less likely to attract the attention of the constabulary these days cavorting in public areas without one’s trousers than one is when merely driving from A to B.

The material world is endlessly fascinating. While it so often seems bent on self destruction, I seem able to watch it these days from the detached perspective of a mostly docile middle age, but it doesn’t stop me from occasionally getting my dander up when the unconscious among us use what few bits of beautiful English green we have left to us for wiping their bottoms on.

Except, reading back on all of this it sounds like rather a long editorial from the Daily Mail – World going to hell in a handcart, public morals shot to pieces, and the police doing nothing about it. But in truth, though I am aware of what goes on, I have never personally witnessed such public indecency as I speak of here, and I don’t lay awake at night worrying about it,  so the West Pennines remain for me another country, and long may it remain so. Policemen are also human beings and do a decent job that many, myself included, would be incapable of. Yes, I’m paranoid about traffic policemen, I break out all nervous and sweaty when one settles on my tail – which is precisely why I imagine I attract them –  when all the guy’s probably thinking is “please let there be no more calls before I finish my shift”. If I could learn to love them, I would no longer care so much when one settles on my tail. That’s going to be quite a challenge, probably beyond me, but its been an interesting weekend’s journey from my first sitting down on Great Hill on Friday morning.

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