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Posts Tagged ‘outdoors’

Settle, Yorkshire Dales.

It didn’t seem possible the forecast could be right for morning. A clear day ahead, it said. Light cloud. Sunshine. But the wind was howling, there were flurries of snow, and heavy rain. I took the little blue car out the evening before to fill her up anyway. Well, I put enough in for the trip. At £1.48 per litre, my local garage is one of the cheapest, but that’s still a record high for me. I reckoned it would break £1.50 by morning.

It did.

But the weather had also changed. The wind had dropped, and it was looking like a dry day, as the forecast promised, so here we are, driving north, to Settle. But the heart is heavy, and the usual thrill at heading for the Dales is lacking. The news from Eastern Europe, this morning, is deeply unsettling.

Traffic is heavy, morning commute time. It takes half an hour to travel five miles, then an hour to cover the remaining forty. In the meadows north of Long Preston, the Ribble has flooded out, and several trees are down. The region has suffered a battering of storms, like everywhere else, these past weeks. But there are snowdrops by the wayside, radiant in the sun, offering glimmers of hope. Ingleborough, is white capped, and gleaming in the distance, a beacon drawing us in.

Settle is bustling, mid-morning. I’ve always like this town. In common with other places in the Dales, it refuses the overt touristification so many other places in national parks, like the Lakes for example, succumb to. As a consequence, it retains its authenticity, its soul. People still live here. I could live here. It is a town contained to the east by high fells, bordered by the Ribble to the west. My home village has few choices for walking, and all are dull. Here the choice is endless and grand.

It’s a good day for a walk, good light for the camera. We pick up the Ribble, and head upstream to Stackhouse, and the weir. The river is lively, and thundering. There’s a backdrop of finely textured cloud lit by a bright, low sun. Penyghent is peeping at us, snow still lying in the gullies on its western flank. The grasses are impossibly green, glowing with a promise that seems somehow inappropriate.

Then it’s Langcliffe, and the path through Dicks Ground Plantation, up the hill to Higher Winskill. The light intensifies, the clouds are moving, and the dale begins to breathe. Back in the summer, I sat here for ages, just watching the light change over Dick’s Ground, with its crazy patchwork of meadows. I try to tease back more of that memory, thinking to regain my centre by it, but it’s elusive. Finches duck about in the thorn tree at our backs. They’re telling us spring is coming. I hope they’re right. But spring will be late in the Ukraine this year, if it comes at all.

Sampson’s Toe, Langcliffe

We skip Catrigg force. I never could get a decent picture of it anyway. Instead, we head up the track towards Langcliffe scar. We’re looking for the Norber Erratics, and find a good one, a huge gritstone boulder atop the limestone. They call this one Samson’s Toe. Perched here for twelve thousand years or so, it’s seen a lot of history, most of it before we ever learned to read and write. It came from the Lake District, carried by ice. There were people around in those days, of course, but it’s anyone’s guess what they were up to, since they predate even our earliest myths. It’s likely they were making war, as we still are. Was there ever a time when we were not dangerous to one another? I presume not, but we were never so dangerous as we are now, so many ways of raining down fire on innocent heads.

We pick up the line of the craggy Attermire Scars, follow them south, towards the more gently rounded Sugar Loaf Hill. The way is of a sudden boggy here, a ring of gaspingly beautiful high dales draining into a broad, squelchy hollow, churned to a deep slime by heavy beasts. We find a dry nest of rock, and hunker down for lunch. Sugar Loaf is to our backs, the line of the Warrendale Knotts, stem to stern, for our view, and the light playing tunes along the length of it.

Warrendale Knotts

Back home, I’ve got more fence panels hanging by a thread. It’s been getting me down, this tail end of winter, but today I don’t care. Today I’m lucky my world is so safe I can be derailed by such trivia. The car ran well, made me feel good, actually, the snarl of it. Plus, of course, it’s a beautiful day, a beautiful view, and my boots haven’t leaked, yet. Still, there’s this shadow hanging over things. We think it’s one thing or another, but the shadow isn’t always a material thing. It comes out of the psyche, sometimes too out of the deeper layers, through which we’re all connected, in which case there’s a lot of people feeling the same unease as me, right now.

We pick up the ancient ways from here, beginning with the Lambert Lane track, and we come back to Settle, approaching from the south. The tracks run deep between dry-stone walls, and are flooded out in places, seemingly impassable. Walkers have taken rocks from the tops of the walls and laid them as stepping stones. These too are submerged now. The boots will surely leak at this challenge, but we arrive back at the car with dry feet, and no complaints.

Seven or eight miles round, still early in the afternoon, we top the day off with coffee, and a toasted bun, at the Naked Man café. Face masks have mostly gone now. Covid scared us all witless, two years ago. Suddenly, no one cares about it, any more.

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My last pair of Scarpa walking boots lasted fifteen years. They were never quite broken in, but they never leaked either. They just grew more deeply scarred, and might have lasted longer, but I lost faith in them. I was worried they’d fall apart and leave me stranded up a mountain in my stocking feet. My current pair, comfortable as carpet slippers from day one, have lasted two years. Now they’re opening up, and letting the water in.

All right, it’s a very, very wet day. Indeed, the moor is as wet as a moor can be. The earth liquifies underfoot as we step on it and we’re frequently over the tops of our laces. The sphagnum is drinking the wet down in greedy gallons, and glowing green for the effort. My jacket, too, is letting the water through, at least on one side where a stiff wind is encouraging it. The weather paints me half dark, half light. I am the yin and the yang of things. This could be my cue to start grumbling about the flimsification of the modern day, but that’s not where we’re going. It’s a wild, bracing day. The year is fresh, and it’s too soon for cynicism.

I’m on Withnell moor again, up from Brinscall. I’ve come through the woods, crossed the top of the Hatch Brook Falls, and climbed Well Lane. Now we’re on the moor, approaching the gaunt ruins of Ratten Clough. Its outline is black against the steady drift of rain. Abandoned in the 1960’s, this is the most substantial ruin of the lost farms. The barn’s gables are intact, the rafters hanging on, a watery silhouette, all against the dynamic grey of the swooping sky. I wonder if, in years to come, it’ll be taken for a millionaires des-res. They have a penchant for buying up romantically charged places like this, and throwing a fortune at them to make of them something twee. But he’ll need a taste for the lonely. There’s bleak, then there’s Withnell Moor, and then there’s Withnell moor on days like these.

Given the forecast, I thought it was a waste of time bringing the big camera. I didn’t want to get it wet. Instead, I’ve packed an old, small-sensor compact. It slips easily into the pocket, and I don’t mind it getting drowned. But you can’t expect to shoot in such murk as this without red noise on a small sensor. There’ll probably be no pictures today, then, except the ones I carry in my head.

The gate to Ratten Clough is tied in several places, and intricately knotted. It’s a public way, but we require a deviation to pick it up. I imagine our millionaire will make it a priority to divert the path. Ah,… another perennial thread of mine creeping in: money buying out our freedoms, sticking up no trespass signs. But we’re not going there, either, today. These are tired old themes, and my laments will do little to change them. So much for the power of attraction, then. I seem only to attract to my attention what I most dislike. Time to let them go. Find fresh pastures, with an emphasis on a more positive kind of magic.

Where are we, now? We’re following the line of a tumbled drystone wall into a blank of mist. With a global positioning system, you’re never lost, are you? But things are hotting up between Russia and the West, and between China and US. It’s not escaped my imagination the first thing the militaries will do, in times of conflict, is encrypt the satellites. And then what? How will we find our way with a road-map, and A to Z again? How will I know how far along this wall to walk, before turning down to the ruins of Botany Bay?

The spindly beech answers. I first met it in the spring, spent a while making friends. It materialises from the grey, now. “Here you are,” it says. “Nice to see you again.” The track’s here. So we make our way down to the ruin, touch the megalith for luck, then turn left, to Rake Brook, by the ruins of Popes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone living here, just a tumble of shapeless blocks, and the brook washing by. It’s in spate today, no evidence of there ever having been a bridge, just these few precarious steppy stones at the vagaries of flood. What can we say about that? Transience? Buddhist themes of impermanence, perhaps?

Apple pies were baked in this bleak hollow, with the wind howling through the chimney pots. Wholesome stews awaited the farmer and his boys, on winter days like these. All gone, now, just names in the census records, and a lonely pile of stones. People make all the difference. Without them to bear witness, the world might as well not exist. Indeed, it might already not exist. Strange thoughts today, Michael.

Mind how we go across the brook. Yes, the boots are definitely leaking, something cold encircling the foot, now. I was going to buy myself a new computer monitor, but it looks like it’ll be a pair of boots instead. I’d been looking forward to getting a new monitor, one of those 4K ultra-high definition things, for the photography. How do we prioritise? Sometimes the fates do it for us.

Watsons farm, now, and a strong waft of cattle as we come through the gate. The cows are all cosy in the barn, steam rising from their noses, as they chew. It’s one of the few farms still working the moor. I borrowed it for my work in progress, fictionalised it, changed universes, moved it down the road a bit. I had the farmer renting rooms, and my protagonist moving into one. Here, I court themes of sanctuary, and shoulders to the weather. Then there are stunning summers on the moors, the call of curlew and the rapture of larks.

Speaking of the novel, it’s descending into chaos, and tom-foolery. We’ve reached that point where it asks me if I want to bail out around 80K words, or wander on for another year, make it an epic. I think we’ll call its bluff and go for the epic. Amid this fall of the world, this crisis of meaning, and the impending climate disaster, it’s led me of a sudden to Helena Petrovna Blavatski, to the Theosophists, and all those curious fin de siècle secret societies.

I’ve had a brush with the redoubtable Madame B before, found her intellectually seductive, but also frightening. I bailed out at that first pass, but it looks like there’s something more she has to tell me, and this time I’m ready to listen. Memo to self: order Gary Lachman’s book, and while we’re at it, the one about Trump, and the political right’s courtship of the occult. It all sounds absurd, but let’s just go with it.

Across the Belmont road now, and the path into the woods becomes a bog. The Roddlesworth river is a lively torrent. We’re four miles out, and the woods are busy with muddy bikes, wet families, and happy, yappy dogs. We swing for home via the ruins of Pimms, on the moor, then Great Hill. The rain is blowing itself out at last. There are hints of sunshine, now, but the going is steep. Great Hill has grown since I last climbed it, swollen with rains to Tyrolean proportions. The ground looks like it’s been overspilling for weeks, and squirting water under every step.

At the summit shelter, I’m able to bag the last space among a gathering of several walking groups, all huddled for lunch. Cue mutterings of overcrowding on the fells, paths churned to slime and all that,… but we’re not going there today either. In my new universe, all are welcome. A jolly dame appears from nowhere, offers mince pies, and a nip of rum for my coffee.

The sun breaks through. There’s a low, gorgeous light of a sudden, under-lit clouds, curtains of rain in the distance. Old Lady Pendle appears, a crouching lion beyond Darwen moor. I try some shots with the little camera, but they come out poorly, red dot noisy. Sometimes, the best pictures are the ones you carry in your head, and they get better with age.

A good day on the moors, then, and never mind the wet feet. There’s a pair of dry socks in the car. Fancy a hot chocolate? We’ll drive over to the Hare and Hounds at Abbey, shall we? See what they can rustle up for us. The year turns.

All is well. Bring it on.

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The Ribble at Marles Wood

I’ve just come a cropper on the Ribble Way. I seem to have discovered the knack, this year, of navigating rights of way that no longer exist, other than on the OS map. I’m using the latest mapping, and GPS. X marks the spot, and yes, it looks like there was a path through here once. I see shadows of its former self in the lie of the land. But it’s adopted now as part of the expanding grounds of this big old house. Mystically speaking, I’m standing in a liminal zone, then. We’re somewhere between the deep past, and a future in which the path isn’t even a memory in the most venerable and crustiest of walkers heads. Technically I’m not trespassing on private property, because the map says I’m not, but I doubt the owner would see it that way. After some desperate manoeuvres in the undergrowth, all efforts end in barbed wire, and I concede defeat. This is becoming a habit.

The path has been unofficially rerouted. I’ve missed the opening, which I discover a little higher up the lane. So, I drop a pin on the GPS to remind me of the location where the path disappears, should I ever come this way again. I’ll not bother reporting it. It’s not my patch, and I’ve got a few reports on the County Council’s PROW website already. I’ll be getting a reputation as a pedantic nutter. Besides, the re-route is as plain as day if you know what you’re looking for, which I didn’t. But here we are. On we plod.

We’ve got a moody sky and light rain today. Pendle hill was the plan this morning, up the Big End from Barley. But it looked like it was promising a soaking, so we came off the A59 and worked our way along the little lane to the car park at Marles Wood. I was there in the summer, delighted by the stretch of the Ribble, upstream to Dinkley Bridge. It was the same today, very picturesque, though looking less autumny that I would have thought for the time of year.

Just down from the car park, we encounter the Ribble at its most lovely. It emerges from a rocky ravine overhung by woodland, before taking a wide bend into open country. There were cormorants and egrets fishing from a distant clutch of rocks this morning. I remember trying a photograph there in the summer, with the big camera, which didn’t come out very well. I’ve got the smaller Lumix today, which usually makes light work of murky conditions. We’ll see how it does.

The walk goes upstream, takes in the Dinkley Bridge, then downstream along this section of the Ribble way to Ribchester, before looping back to the car. I’d given up on it in the summer, in the heat, made do with the Marles Wood stretch, and I’m glad I did. I’m far less enchanted by this return leg on the Ribble Way, but only because my pride is dented. I don’t like mucking about in mud and brambles around farms, and posh houses. I’m sure the occupants don’t like it either. But a little friendly signage would go a long way towards helping everyone out. I have the impression the wealthy find the footpath network annoying, even a little socialist, and would rather have it done away with. Or is that the politics of envy talking?

Ribble Way signage, resting in the mud.

Speaking of signage, I come across a fallen footpath marker a little further on. I’m getting the impression the Ribble Way isn’t a well walked route, or not well liked by landowners. Anyway, we muddle through, make it finally to a line of fishermen by the bridge at Ribchester, where the air is suddenly funky. I’ve no idea what other narcotics smell like, but cannabis isn’t exactly discrete. If it’s ever legalised there’ll be an outcry against the smell alone. Odd, but I’d never have thought to combine whacky baccy with fishing.

The rain is coming on heavier now. I had planned to take the rights of way that cut up through the environs of New Hall, then up the valley side, into the woods – more new ground for me. This might be straight forward, or it might involve another mysterious re-route. With the weather coming on, I’m in no mood for that, so take a short-cut and brave the traffic along the Ribchester Road. A pleasant diversion for a wet day, about five miles round, and worth it for the section between Marles Wood and Dinkley bridge alone.

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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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I took this picture of a buzzard a few weeks ago. It made my day, actually, felt like a good luck charm. They used to be a rare sight in the UK, but are now making a bit of come-back, except for this one, which is now dead. I was out with the camera recently and I met a fellow walker who told me he’d found a buzzard, shot, in that same area. It was alive, but had a broken wing. So he took it to the vet, but the vet couldn’t do anything, so it was put down.


It wasn’t a good start to the day. I’d set out to get some more miles under the belt, and to photograph trees along the way. I was after experimenting with a thing called high dynamic range. It’s a trick in photography that simulates the way the eye sees the world. I like the effect. Other photographers think it’s an abomination. I think the same thing about shooting birds. But we were talking about photography, except we weren’t. We’re talking about vision, and different ways of seeing the world.


When we look at a scene, we see everything – colour, brightness and so on, all of it perfectly rendered, but a camera’s different. Take a good picture of the foreground, and you might find there are no details in the clouds, because the sky has burned out. Take a good picture of the sky, with lots of dreamy texture in the clouds, and you might find the ground is too dark to make out any details.


The trick is to take several pictures of the subject. The bright areas, the dark areas and the middle brightness each have their own photograph. They call it bracketing. Then you overlay them in a piece of software that’s clever enough to compensate for the little bits of movement between shots. Finally, you apply a thing called tone mapping. This makes the colours brighter, more vibrant.

Anyway, I’d hoped to see the buzzard again while I was out, but from what the guy said it seemed unlikely. So I lined up my trees, and took my pictures. And no, I didn’t see the bird, so I’m assuming the worst, and the day was all the poorer for it. Indeed, it lent the landscape an air of doom and threat. The photography wasn’t a success either, other than getting the exercise in. The light was too flat to take advantage of the technique. But most of all I’d messed up with various settings along the way and my shots wouldn’t line up.


Even the best results I got were peculiar, and noisy, a far cry from the images you see by professionals. But one step at a time. We’ll try again on the next walk, different light, different settings. After all, I’m not looking to sell to National Geographic here. I like to stumble upon the occasional shot of my travels that makes me go “wow”! That’s the nature of amateur photography and the limit of my aspirations.


Seeing an egret the other day had perked my spirits up. It had me wondering if we weren’t turning a corner, after the darkness of 2020, and what I interpret as a gravely flawed mindset that’s resulted in over 100,000 dead. But the loss of that buzzard has left a hole. It’s made we wonder if we’re still subject to dark forces oppressing us, even now, with a vaccine being rolled out.


All wild birds are protected in the UK. That said, it’s okay to shoot some of them under licence by calling it “pest control”. Which birds are classed as pests, and why they’re considered pests is very much the subject of debate. On the one side you have the RSPB who don’t like to shoot birds. Then you have the legislators in the middle who make the rules. And on the other side there are the lobby groups like the Countryside Alliance, who represent those who do like to shoot birds. Buzzards can be shot legally under licence – mostly around airports where’s they present a clear danger to life and limb – but the terms are very strict. I’m guessing the majority of birds elsewhere are shot on the sly, either due to ignorance, or more likely moneyed interest.


Personally I’d rather observe, and protect wild birds than look for loopholes so I can shoot them. I’m sure whoever shot that buzzard felt they were justified and could give me a heated dressing down regarding my naivety and ignorance in the ways of the real world and proper country living, which is fair enough, and better for me to think they didn’t just do it for fun.


But this isn’t getting to my point, which appears to be hammering my attempts at photography into a metaphor of sorts. And I think it has to do with degrees of awakening. As I said, not everyone likes the high dynamic range look. Colours can seem over-blown, airy-fairy even a bit trippy. They can take a dull, flat-lit scene and explode it into a Van Gough. But as with light, so with thought. The fact we’ve come up with rules to protect wild birds suggests we’re capable of attaining a much higher dynamic, even though a narrower and near monochromatic attitude persists, and will always find ways and means of undermining the best efforts of those more awakened. It’s a complex argument, and the other lot have guns, but I’d sooner be on my end of the spectrum than theirs. I’d sooner look for ways a creature can avoid being shot than contriving reasons for why it should.


I’d been looking forward to getting more pictures of that buzzard over the summer, getting to know its territory, its favoured vantage points, then I could sneak myself within range of a sharper image. Looks like I’ll be sticking to trees for a while though, trying to make them look Van Gough and trippy. It’s an interest, and it gets me outdoors. And yes, I still like high dynamic range photography, even when it doesn’t quite work.


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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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penyghent

Penyghent – Yorkshire Dales

I wasn’t sure what reception I’d get at Horton in Ribblesdale. In the fledgling pandemic days, locals barricaded the car parks to keep visitors away. But things were pretty much back to normal this morning. I wanted to get the winter sleep out of my legs and, it now being August, there was a growing sense of urgency about matters. Walking on the flat is better than nothing, but what a hill walker needs is a hill. And what better hill is there than Penyghent?

Penyghent, isn’t the highest of the Yorkshire peaks but it’s got to be the prettiest. Its ascent from Horton involves a long pull up the Brackenbottom scars, then  a couple of easy scrambles to the top. The downside is it’s a popular route, on the three-peaks circuit, so there’s never a time when you’ll have it to yourself. Today was no exception.

The drive over was busy, the A59 a long snarl of impatient heavies and white vans. I was cut up by a pair of vans at the Tickled Trout doing a hundred miles an hour. Then there were the Hooray Henriettas in their Chelsea-tractors who can’t always be relied upon to signal their intentions when whizzing around roundabouts. And the giant hardcore wagons thundering along the A682 and the A65 seemed even bigger and faster and more thundery than usual. Maybe I’m just too old to be venturing far these days.

As for the hill, it was a slow moving procession. The groups were well spaced out, but several of them were over-large and troublesome on the pass. For a while I trailed an old timer. He stepped aside to let me through, then gave me a shake of the head and told me with a touch of pathos he was not the man he used to be. The guy was well into his eighties, memories of many a mountain trail etched into the lines of his face. We were coming up to the five hundred meter contour by then and a couple of miles out of Horton, so he wasn’t doing too bad. A sit down to admire the view, a swig water, and he’d be fine.

You scramble for a joke at times like that, something to make light. I told him we could all say the same, about not being the man we used to be. I’m not sure where that came from. Sometimes the unconscious speaks its own mind, unbidden.

I saw him on the summit later, making steady progress. He might not have been as fast as he was – which I suppose is what he meant – but he lacked none of the grit. That’s the important thing for a man. Once we lose our grit, we’re done because life will always find a way of testing it, no matter how old we get.

The summit was a busy spot for lunch, crowds and bits of ancient banana skin scattered everywhere. The overlarge groups were annoying. One of them comprised corporate types with iPhones poised, responding to business emails at the tops of their voices. So, it was a quick bite and off. Sadly, the three peaks route was always a magnet for pricks.

If you want lonely on Penyghent, you head north from the summit to Plover Hill. Then it’s back down the knee-breaking length of the Foxup Road. But not today. Today, I was just grateful to be out on the hill, grateful for the aliveness of it, and the scent of the wild.

Penyghent left me with aching hips, but the rest of me was fine. If I have any doubts about myself it’s a waning confidence on the roads. They seem crazy-busy now, or maybe I’m slowing down. Am I the man I used to be? Well no, of course not. But then like I said to the old-timer, none of us are. We can only hope the bits of youth we’ve lost to the inevitable leakage of time are replaced with something else. Call it an eye for the sublime, and a more mindfully placed step. I don’t know.

There was a coffee shop in Horton doing takeaways. Face mask and hand gel, granted access. All is change. We just have to roll with it, and be accepting.

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bomber memorial

The Bomber Memorial, Anglezarke, August 2019

The dog days are upon us, bringing with them a stultifying heat, humidity, and thunderstorms. The Western Pennines have escaped the worst of it, unlike Derbyshire, Cheshire and North Yorkshire, all of which have suffered an apocalyptic pounding this week. We’ve had one flood warning, fortunately short lived as the storms broke elsewhere. Anglezarke meanwhile was steamy, the reservoirs as yet not full, but filling fast, the becks running high and the air enlivened by the sound of water as a week’s rains poured from the moors.

I had in mind a brief walk to check out a possible megalith, over in the meadows towards Jepson’s farm, but was defeated by cowardice, or the better part of valour, whichever you prefer. From the Yarrow reservoir there’s a network of footpaths taking you north through lush pastures which rise steeply to the edge of the moor. It’s just a short hop from the car and far enough in such a fierce heat. As I set out I saw a peregrine which gave me pause. When birds of prey are aloft the song birds go into stealth mode, and the atmosphere of a place changes. I’m also superstitious about birds and this one had the look of an omen about it.

Then there were sheep. Suddenly. Thousands of sheep, running, panicking, wave upon wave of them undulating across the green and all heading towards me. Sheep moving like that are generally being driven by something – a dog, or a farmer’s quad-bike – but all I could hear was the beating of hooves on a heavy earth. It was puzzling. Then came another sound, deeper, and distinctly bovine. The thing driving them was a crazed bullock.

The countryphile has no fear of sheep – I know some townies do, but trust me, they’re harmless creatures, even in large numbers, though easily spooked. I’ve read they’re more intelligent than a dog and I had it in my head they’d clocked me as a human being, therefore a useful idiot, and were making a beeline, expecting me to sort this stupid and possibly heat-addled bullock out, give it a stern ticking off for tormenting them. I’m afraid they overestimated my pluck.

The rules regarding potentially aggressive farm animals and public footpaths are strict, but not all farmers obey them, and it’s for the walker to make their own judgement when encountering these large ruminants, which can also come in armed varieties with pointy things on their heads. Cows are generally okay, require caution if they’re with calves but might attack on instinct if you’ve a dog with you, so always let the dog go. Cows are easily identifiable of course: they have udders. Bulls are a different matter, and opinions vary. Some are aggressive, some aren’t. A bull for beef isn’t, I’m told, while a bull for dairy is, but neither kind have udders and I wouldn’t know the difference, nor in what context each might be encountered because they do not come with labels attached.

A bull in a field of cows generally has other things to think about than chasing walkers. A field of bullocks is also considered safe and, though they can sometimes be curious, can easily be discouraged by a wave and a shout. However, while we’re invited to take it on trust the farmer wouldn’t deliberately endanger life, there’s no point lying on a morgue slab crushed under a ton of beef claiming you had lawful right of passage across his meadow.

Now perhaps a charging bullock isn’t as dangerous as it looks, but I decided discretion was the better part of valour and backtracked hastily, left the sheep to their torment, and scrambled to safety over the gate. Peculiar thing – I’ve never seen sheep and cattle grazing together before. Still, it seems sheep do at least keep the bullocks entertained, and vice versa.

So, I abandoned my search for the megalith and am still a bit ticked off about it. Instead I walked a little way up Lead Mine’s Clough, climbed the valley-side to the bomber memorial, then sat down. This is a fine, tranquil viewpoint – no sheep and no bullocks.

The memorial remembers the loss of a Wellington bomber – Zulu 8799 – on Hurst Hill, in the November of 1943. Out on a navigational exercise from its base in Leicestershire, it  struck the moor in the small hours of the morning with an impact that was felt for miles around. It had a crew of six, and all were lost. The pilot, Timperon, just 24, came from Alice Springs in Australia, came half way round the world to die on Anglezarke moor, about as far from hearth and home as it’s possible to imagine.

It’s a sobering thought, imagining those war years and the young being called up, and sent to places they’ve most likely never heard of. From reading war diaries of fighting men, you get a feeling for the mixture of fear and the sense of wanting to do one’s duty, but I have to close my thoughts off from imagining what it was like for those six lads in those last moments before the crash. There are no physical traces on the moor now, though the debris field was still there well into the sixties when I went up with my dad and had a pick through the various bits of twisted metal.

More often true valour does not have the luxury of discretion; it just has to button down, and get on with it.

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hartsop barn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hayeswater

Hayeswater from Satura Crag

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

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

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

angletarn

Angle Tarn

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

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

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

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

Thank you William.

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

Sure we do.

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

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

Three miles still to the car, did you say?

They can wait.

Hartsop vire to threshthwaite

Hartsop

 

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great hill dec 2014 sm

Great Hill – Western Pennines – UK

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

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

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

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

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

And on top of Great Hill,
There is litter.

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