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Midsummer from the Pike

My thanks to fellow blogger Ashley, for his evocative Haiku this morning, and from which I stole the title of this blog. My thanks also for inspiring me to get out up a hill this evening, Ashley, and what a golden evening it was. It is of course mid-summer, and the longest day. As I write, the sun has now set, so, in a way, I suppose we have made the summit and already taken the first of those hesitant steps back down. I say hesitant, because the summit is so beautiful, and the air so balmy, and the sky so blue, and nights like this are few.

My nearest hill of any note is Rivington Pike, so that’s where I headed. Early evening and the Hall Avenue was almost as full as it might have been on a busy weekend, so a lot of people had the same idea. Mid-summer clearly means something to us, as a population, as a people, though we may not know exactly what it is. Yet, still, it draws us out. We speak of energy, of peace, of beauty, of dreams, even – dare I say – of the Faerie. To be sure, June nights are often the gentlest, and have about them an air of magic.

Rivington Pike

I made the top of the Pike by around 8:00 pm, still nearly two hours from the sunset. The Pike was filling up, but in a quiet sort of way. There were couples, families, a trio of young women in spandex with new agey trinkets and Yoga mats, and a couple of strapping lads with little pug dogs. All were settling down to see the sun out. There was an air of festival, and – it has to be said – a smell of weed. Druids and other modern pagan groups would be celebrating at Stonehenge, also at Glastonbury Tor. In my neck of the woods, we have the Pike.

As traditional Christian religious observance falls away, there is a tendency to assume we westerners are losing our religion, but all we are really losing is our dogma. People cannot help but be spiritual, for to be moved by a sunset is a spiritual thing. To make an effort to catch a sunset at a turning point of the year, this is a spontaneous religious observance, one for which no church bell needs to toll.

That said, I didn’t actually wait for the sunset, but just rested a while, rested in the subtle energy of those also quietly gathered. It reminded me of something from my childhood and put me in a loving frame of mind, I suppose. All my fellows were my brothers and sisters this evening. I took a few shots with the camera, but felt self-conscious. The DSLR is a noisy thing – one of its downsides. Everyone else was happy with the quiet little cameras on their ‘droids and iPhones. So then I came away, descended the leafy terraced gardens, beneath the Pike, all of which were by now illumined by the golden hour.

Leverhulme’s terraced gardens

There’s probably a wild party going on up there now, with the young ones, and if there is, then good on you, kids! That’s it with the hill of summer, once you make the summit, you feel mellow. I recall, in the I Ching, or Book of Changes, Hexagram 20 speaks of a tower, raised on a hill. It’s a place of contemplation, where we rest from a point of vantage, and survey the paths we’ve taken on our journey, also the paths that lead on from here. The energy of the sun has peaked, raised us up. So now what?

Well, to think of the nights drawing in, the days shortening, autumn and winter approaching, is perhaps to jump the gun a bit. We have the rich splendour of the ripening seasons still to come, when our labours shall bear fruit, or so one hopes. It depends on what one has sown, thus far. And of course, we don’t have to wait so long for the golden hour of light, that precedes the sunset.

Anyway, I retire now, with the clock pressing for midnight, wishing you all good night, and I hope to dream of the Tuatha de Danaan. That’s the other thing about the solstice – that air of the faery and Titatnia, about it.

What’s that? You don’t believe in the Faery? Of course you do. You’re just afraid to admit it.

Thanks for listening.

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Anglezarke Moor

Rivington, in the West Pennines, a popular spot at the best of times, it became a Mecca for urban escapees during the COVID-19 restrictions. But now the nation’s shops and pubs have re-opened, things have become a little quieter, at least mid-week. So it is, this morning, we park with casual impunity and unexpected ease along the Rivington Hall avenue. This would have been impossible a few months ago. Our plan this morning is to head up onto the moor via the terraced gardens, take in Noon Hill, then investigate a lonely old ruin called Coomb.

Rivington is famous for many things, not least among them being the first Viscount Leverhulme’s terraced gardens. They fared poorly after his death in 1925, falling quickly to ruin amid a profusion of rampant ornamental forest. Walking here was always like rediscovering the remains of a lost citadel. There have been several attempts to revive them. The most recent work, undertaken by the Rivington Heritage Trust began in 2016. This has been a most ambitious, well-funded undertaking, and the results are impressive. Previously dangerous structures are now repaired and returned to use. Lawned areas, long overtaken by nature, have been cleared of scrub, and re-seeded. Lakes have been drained, repaired and refilled. Still a work in progress, and a hive of enthusiastic volunteer activity – restrictions permitting – it has been a joy to see it returning to life. I just hope the trolls, or what the gamer community call NPC’s, don’t ruin it.

The kitchen gardener’s hut – Terraced Gardens, Rivington

The gardens occupy a vast area, and include many listed structures. There are also miles and miles of pathways to explore, with spectacular views out over the plain. No wonder it’s a popular venue. But today there’s a relaxed silence about the place, granting us the rare impression we have it all to ourselves.

The beech trees overhanging the terraces are in leaf now, and provide gorgeous cascades of fresh spring green. The oaks look to be about a week behind them, an orangey-redness to their leaves as they begin to swell.

I’m reading a book called “Entangled life” at the moment, basically about fungi. Fungi are one of the most mysterious and ancient forms of life on earth. Amongst many other things, they form vast networks that connect trees, through their root systems – a kind of Wood Wide Web, allowing trees to share information. The fungi trade nutrients with favoured species, in return for carbon. It’s an area of study that suggests we still know very little about the ecology of the earth, what holds it together, and how easily we can make disastrous interventions, destroying whole swathes of life upon which we ultimately depend ourselves. The book has made me look at trees differently.

The lower Summer House – Terraced Gardens, Rivington

Anyway, zig-zagging up the terraces we gradually rise some five hundred feet to the iconic Pigeon tower. From here pilgrims usually turn right, and head on up to the Pike. But today we’re heading left, along the Belmont Road, and onto the moor. This is the old stage-coach route from Bolton. A broad, rough track of uneven stone sets, it’s navigable only by rogue 4x4s, and the occasional fire-engine during the outdoor barbecue season. After a half mile or so there’s an access point to Catter Nab, which allows us to pick our way across the moor, towards Noon Hill.

This area was the scene of ferocious heath fires some years back, with a terrible loss of habitat. Some estimates suggest it will take centuries to recover. The moor is healing of a fashion now, the bare earth being re-colonised, but in ways that appear alien. The grasses are a shorter, greener variety. And there are bright orange mosses growing up and over the scattered grit-stones. The cotton-grass has come back, but with little competition it paints the moors now in prolific waves of bobbing white hares’ tails.

After being without company thus far, we discover to our chagrin the summit of Noon Hill is occupied, by unfriendly men in camo. They have a large, aggressive hound, a bull-lurcher, that takes umbrage at our approach. We’re better giving this dubious party a wide berth, so we head instead towards Winter Hill where we encounter the infamous bog coming off the saddle. I’m looking for a familiar track, down to the Belmont Road, but coming to it from the wrong direction I’m confused by what turns out to be an impromptu beeline cut by bikers under the influence of gravity. Water has found its way into the grooves and is fast eroding the peat, giving the impression of a well walked way.

At the bottom we are separated from the track by a barbed wire fence which has the appearance of being smashed open, then hastily re-jigged with a mad tangle of barbed wire. Its crossing looks tempting, though messy, to say nothing of hazardous in the trouser department, so we take the prudent option and follow the fence north a little, to where the more familiar path grants proper access.

Here we cross the track and venture into a little area of moorland between the Belmont Road and Sheephouse Lane. This is where we find the farm marked on the oldest maps as “Coomb”. Historian and local author, John Rawlinson* tells us the local pronunciation was “Comp”. By the later Victorian period, it was a vacated and unnamed ruin. Very little remains now, and its outlines are difficult to decipher.

Winter Hill, from the ruins of Coomb

The word Comp itself was likely a dialect corruption of “camp”, legend being there was a military camp here in Roman times. Mr Rawlinson also writes of an archaeological dig that yielded artefacts. These were retained by Viscount Levehulme, but the finds were not documented, and were lost on his passing. Time has long erased Coomb or Comp or Camp, certainly from living memory, and pretty much from the written record as well, but this morning at least, it provides us with a decent, if somewhat forlorn, foreground interest for a shot of Winter Hill. Unusually for the lost farms hereabouts, it is without trees, and looks all the more lonely on account of it.

We turn south of west now, along the line of the deep, narrow valley which gives birth to Dean Brook and opens out to Flag Delph, at the corner of Sheephouse Lane. Here we pick up the path to Lower House, above Rivington, and finally return to the car, refreshed in spirit and feeling philosophical, wondering what rich trove of stories was also lost with the demise of these upland farms, and what a shame no one thought it important, at the time, to write them down. Mixed weather and cold today – some hail, appropriately enough, on Winter Hill. Just four-and-a bit-miles, up to the twelve hundred foot contour, but apparently there is still plenty of puff left in the old geezer. What am I, nowadays, I wonder? let loose across the moors to muse on trees and fungi, and lost farms? Am I walker? Writer? Blogger? Photographer? Or just a plain old retiree? It matters not how we label it. All I know is, it beats working.

* Mr John Rawlinson was the president and Chairman of the Chorley and District Archaeological Society, also a good, and generous friend to my father, encouraging him in his own researches into the prehistoric remains of the Anglezarke area. His book, About Rivington (1969) is the definitive guide to this area, meticulously researched and containing a wealth of local lore, gleaned from conversation with its then living inhabitants. I remember him as a very kindly old gentleman, when my father and I would visit him at his home on Crown Lane in Horwich in the late 1960’s. He passed away in 1972. His book is sadly out of print now, though still oft-quoted in secondary sources, both on and offline. My father’s copy, padded out with correspondence from Mr Rawlinson is much treasured, and much thumbed.

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Pikestones – Anglezarke Moor

I’ve been out of sorts recently: low energy, and the back’s been aching, threatening something dire in the region of the sciatic nerve. But the weather’s been fair, I thought the air would clear the head, and a bit of a walk loosen the back. A short hike to the Pikestones was far enough, and I was curious to see if the sit-mat was still there, after leaving it behind on my last visit. I did not like to think of it littering. Better to retrieve it, though there was a good chance a passing walker might have adopted it.

I felt washed out as I started the climb by Parson’s Bullough, and by the time I came to the ladder-style by Peewit Hall, I was running on empty. Here, I reached up to hook the top of it with my arm – resistant to grabbing hold of things with the hands, due to Covid transmission fears – but I missed. No bother, I thought, the legs will hold me while I have another swing at it. They didn’t. There was nothing in them. They buckled, and I sailed backwards into the ditch.

I checked the camera for damage. It was fine. I was fine, just no energy. Plus, I was an idiot. Damn Covid! Damn its cursed erosion of trust, that we fear to touch what others might have touched, fear to go where others might have gone. We cannot live like this forever!

Anyway, there were peewits out in the meadow, curlew coming over from the moor, bleat of lambs with the season in full swing. And I could hear skylarks. Beat of life. Beat of nature. Rush of sap to the swelling buds – just not my buds. I was blocked, or leaking somewhere. Steady, slowly to your feet, take a few deliberate breaths. Reach. Now grab. GRAB dammit! With your hand. And look: gnarled wood under the palm, bleached under a thousand suns, deep pitted, patterned with crusty lichens, yellow-green and teal. It’s darker, and shiny where other hands have touched it, smoothed it in their passing. The texture. The beauty,… Yes, all right, all right,… I get the message.

I took a firm hold, and made it over the second time, dropped the pace the rest of the way to the Pike Stones. When you know you’re running off-song, there’s no sense flooring it and burning a hole through a piston. Okay, so here we are. Sit, now. Breathe. Qigong breathing. Remember that? Deep. Slow. Find the centre. I’ve been neglecting the Qigong, forgetting its principles. I’ve let it go off the boil a bit. Anyway, the sit mat wasn’t there. It’s been adopted – and welcome. Such an easy thing to do, forget your sit-mat. Gormless though.

It was chicken and mushroom soup from the thermos for lunch. Scan the plain below through the binocs. Chorley, Southport, Liverpool, Preston, Lake District, Snowdonia – everything where it should be, only myself slightly displaced if not exactly in space and time, then metaphysically, somehow, and no I can’t explain what I mean by that.

I took my time heading back, feeling cross on account of Ego, which has little patience for empty legs. Ego wanted Great Hill, Spitler’s Edge, Winter Hill. It wanted the endless miles and the indestructibility of youth. Just three miles brought me around by the lead mines, an insult to the Ego, but the bones and feet were aching like I’d done a ten-miler. Paradoxically, the back felt easier. Strange that but, as a cure for back-ache, launching oneself backwards from a ladder stile is a little extreme, and hardly to be recommended. The car was waiting with a smile. I dropped the top and basked a while in the restorative tonic of a noonday sun. Then I drove home.

Rushy Brow – Anglezarke Moor

The bones responded well to a hot bath, then I flicked through the bagged shots with a glass of red. Blue skies are uninteresting now. To think: how I used to edit the holiday pics, take out the cloudy skies. Look, look what good weather we had! Now, give me dynamic skies, and a camera that can handle them! Things change. We age. We grow. Patience. Qigong. Meditation. Remember? I’ve forgotten these things – our little Tai Chi group blown to smithereens over a year ago now by the damned Covid. Lord knows if we’ll ever breathe deep of the same air as each other again, touch others, explore their centre with the dancing grace of Push Hands and all without the fear of germs.

So much has been lost, we’ll be a generation counting the scale of it. Was it inevitable we would grind things out as long and slow as this? Might things have been different with a more urgently human-centric approach from the beginning? Let it rip,… Let the bodies be piled in their,… no, don’t go there, Mike. Let others pick at that one. Anyway, all that was a week ago. I’m feeling better now, the energy returning. Sometimes that’s the way, and you just have to be easy on yourself in the meantime. The weather looks like being a mixed bag for the remainder of the week: April showers, interesting skies.

Time we were out again.

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corncrakeThe searing heat abated somewhat today, though the stupefying humidity remained. I decided on just a short outing then, not too far nor too strenuous but still found myself dripping in minutes.

Where was I? Well, see if you can guess: the forest floor was ferny thick and the canopy abuzz with a torment of flies. There were plastic bottles a plenty in the undergrowth, ditto crisp packets, also a wealth of spent nitrous oxide cartridges. Higher up the hill, among the painstakingly restored terraced walkways there were the usual bags of dog turds hanging from trees like bizarre offerings to the ever salivating demons of barbarism, oh,… and there was an adult diaper oozing mess. We could only be in the Rivington Terraced Gardens then, or just about anywhere else in the countryside these days.

But on a lighter note I had recently discovered this thing called Google Lens. If you have a data signal, you can point your Android device’s camera at anything, and it will tell you what it is. So, whilst out and about in the green and with quite a perky signal, I decided to try it out – in the field so to speak. However, it swore blind the oak leaf was from a different tree entirely, a more exotic and entirely unpronounceable Amazonian species. It struggled to find any sort of name for a sycamore leaf at all, was confused by a humble bramble, but did identify, in the corner of that particular frame a corncrake, which would have been sensational had it not actually been my foot.

All of which got me thinking, if Google really is intent on displacing superfluous human activities like driving cars and reading maps, and telling us what things are, there must come a point when we’re no longer capable of knowing about these things for ourselves. It is at that point our entire frame of reference will be dictated by a kind of iron-brained deity we have in fact constructed, placed our trust in, and quite probably sacrificed our own long term survival on planet earth so this unconscious entity can thrive while missing the point entirely, that without us humble thinking beings, this artificial creature has no purpose at all.

It might well be an oak tree we are looking at, but we shall be forced to call it whatever the machine says it is, whether it is or not. And if the machine has no name for a thing, we shall stare at that nameless thing in horror, as we might at a demon come to threaten our entire world view.

For a time there’ll still be grey-haired die-hards who like to read books and maps, Luddites who insist on driving their own cars, but we won’t last much longer and then, well, you kids are on your own, and you’ve only yourselves to blame. The real world is still out there, though looking a little sorry for itself now, quite literally shat upon, and suffering ever more frequent paroxisms of climatic excess that we’re probably too late to fix. And I suppose the thing is we’ve never respected it, trusted instead in our own superiority, in our technologies, so now we find ourselves with gormless expressions, tongues hanging out, noses pressed against the glass of our latest device, peering in to a world that doesn’t exist, while the one that does, the one that sustains us and gives us air to breathe, we have allowed to catch fire.

We are adept at adaptation, so much so there can never be an example of dystopia outside of science fiction, for no matter how weird or absurd, oppressive or dangerous our world becomes, we have already accepted it as the new normal, even before it’s claimed its first victims.

Corncrake? Yea right.

 

 

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italian lake

Leverhulme’s Italian Lake

If you wander up the side of Rivington moor, towards the Pike, you’ll come across what looks like the remains of a lost citadel. Is this the ruin of some ancient Lancastrian civilisation? No. It’s the remains of a summer palace, created by Thomas Mawson in the early part of the last century for the pleasure of the industrialist, William Hesketh Lever (Lord Leverhulme). Known as the Terraced Gardens, photographs from the period suggest a stunning arrangement of architectural and botanical wonders, crowned by Leverhulme’s residence, “The Bungalow” which played host to glittering parties for the region’s well-to-do. Leverhulme died in 1925 and – sobering thought this – almost at once, the place fell into ruin.

There have been various attempts since to stabilise the remains and preserve them as some sort of amenity, the most recent being a Heritage Lottery funded project which is making perhaps the biggest effort I can remember, and which I believe has been largely successful, rolling back nature a little and revealing much more of the structures we had thought lost for ever. Not entirely ruinous, there are various summerhouses, the Italian and the Japanese lake (with waterfalls), the stupendous seven arched bridge, and the iconic Pigeon tower, to say nothing of winding terraced pavements, are all intact and accessible for free, to be explored at will.

terraced garden steps

As we wander among these romantic ruins today, it’s hard not to slip into contemplative mode, thus you discover me sitting a while by the newly renovated “Italian Lake” thinking, among other things, about that scourge of modern times (forgive me): BREXIT! The other things, we’ll get to in a moment, but for now whether you’re a Remainer or a Brexiteer, the one thing we can agree on is the disruptive influence it has had on the nation’s psyche these past few years. Internet, TV, radio – the first thing you hear is BREXIT. And everyone is angry about it and with each other, about it.

For myself I’m viewing it all somewhat darkly, though with a grim resignation now, watching as politicians manoeuvre themselves, and seemingly in such a way as to guarantee the coming hammer-blow inflicts the most damage on those who can defend against it the least. If a foreign power had set out to undermine, and collapse the United Kingdom, politically, socially and economically, they could have done no better job than we seem to be doing ourselves. But is it reasonable I should feel this way? I mean is it rational? Not that I am mistaken, but more that I should care at all?

World events are what they are, and while they do seem parlous at the moment, and on many fronts, there is nothing I can do about any of them, and this has always been so for the individual down the generations, and for all time. The world is like Leverhulme’s garden, for ever in need of repair. Take your eye off it for a minute and the stones are coming out, the tiles are slipping, the water is getting in and spoiling the carpet. In short there is no Arcadia, only at best a continual effort to maintain the good, and the progressive, in the direction of least harm.

twin arches

But then there are times when I wonder if it isn’t the other way around, that I am creating the mess myself in my head, and faithfully manifesting what I feel through the decay of the world. So is the solution to the macrocosm’s disintegration, not also to be found in working towards the restoration of the microcosm of my own self? It’s a silly way of thinking perhaps, but such are the run of my thoughts this afternoon, and if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to follow them wherever they take me.

I’ve been reading competing theories of human development – one of them essentially spiritual and inactive, letting be what will be, and the other active, secular and psychological, addressing the flaws of the self which, in me, seem no less abundant than they were decades ago, the same neuroses flaring up at the slightest provocation, the same doubts, the same ignorance.

It’s Ken Wilbur who talks about vectors, though he may not call them that. When a solution to our ills seems to rush off with a certain energy and in a particular direction, and then another solution, seeming just as convincing, rushes off in another direction, it’s likely neither solution is correct but it’s reasonable to assume the greatest gain might be found somewhere in-between the two, so we sum the vectors and see where they lead us. But what if the vectors are diametrically opposed and of equal energy? Then they cancel out and leave us right back where we started, only with one hell of an internal tension – or there would be if, this afternoon, I wasn’t simply watching raindrops fall on the Italian Lake.

He would swim in this lake – Leverhulme I mean. I see him now, coming down the steps from the bungalow, maybe even a cool, wet day like this. A butler follows him at a respectful distance with towel and umbrella. He lowers himself into the water, (Leverhulme, not the butler) and pushes off. The water is peaty and scummy this afternoon, and full of tadpoles, so I’m thinking he must have had a serf in waders skim it regularly. And now, a century later, here I am, thinking about him, wondering what it is he means to me, and most likely it’s nothing other than a convenient lever against the fulcrum of thought, trying to move something otherwise immovable into the realms of a murky understanding.

A week ago, I was up by Angle Tarn in the far eastern fells, remote from the world, my thoughts moving much more freely than now. Now I’m back in the thick of it, and wondering about the pointlessness of so much of the suffering we see, day to day. It’s the default position, I suppose, when we stop believing in God, empirical reason alone just circles the plughole of its own bath-water, leaving us with nothing by way of a sense of meaning, only this gnawing feeling we’ve missed a trick somewhere.

terraced garden trail

True, it has to be said the evidence isn’t overwhelmingly in favour of a benign, interventionist deity either. But I’ve noticed life does go better when we err on the side of caution, and allow room for some form of mystical thinking, if only because it enables us to transcend the noise of our Twitter feed, pull our snouts from the trough for a moment and glimpse the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture is that for long periods of our history we have lived with the expectation that every day will be just like the last, generally peaceful and prosperous, and that such a happy state might last for ever and be passed on to our children. But every now and then events arise that deny us the comfort of familiar times. And while it’s at such times there is the greatest potential for personal and national tragedy, there is also the greatest opportunity for self knowledge and understanding.

It’s hard to say what it is that’s coming exactly, and what kind of harm it will inflict, but whatever it is we’d each be wise to look more closely at the mending of ourselves, for it’s only through such self-healing we discover we are better able to understand and take care of one another. From what I see at present though, and in increasingly vivid colours since the cloud of BREXIT burst over our heads and washed all manner of demons from the sewers, looking after one another seems the least of our priorities. Instead we withdraw to the boundaries, or rather to the fissures, of our respective clan identities, project evil onto the rest and then, for want of a simple bit of maintenance, the whole damned lot comes crashing down.

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yarrow reservoir 1

The Yarrow Reservoir

So, we’re leaving the car by the Yarrow reservoir this afternoon, tucked into one of the cuttings along Parson’s Bullough road. It’s a cold sun sort of day, enough to tease us outdoors, but the daffodils are looking shivery, so we’ll need to zip up. There’s a good light on the reservoir, and the sun just low enough now for the contrasts to be interesting.

The Yarrow reservoir: late Victorian period, built to supply water to Liverpool and, along with its much larger neighbours, the Anglezarke and the Rivington reservoirs, it was all something of a tragedy if you consider the land and the farms and the homes that were sacrificed to progress hereabouts. But they’ve been an unchanging fixture of my own life and, as far as reservoirs go, they’re beautiful and have bedded in well.

This afternoon’s jaunt will cover about three miles, where we’ll find a varied and fast changing scenery of moors and meadows, woods and running water, also a few dark tales along the way.

yarrow reservoir mapWe start with a bit of quiet road-walking, first across Alance Bridge, which spans the tail end of the reservoir. You sometimes get idiot kids tomb-stoning from the bridge in the summer, but it achieved a different kind of notoriety a few years back when murderers crept out of one the darker cracks of Bolton and attempted to dispose of a body by dropping it over the side here. It’s not a story I’m happy to be adding to local lore, and it reminds me these remoter stretches of Lancashire are perhaps best not explored after dark.

Next comes the climb up Hodge Brow, eventually passing an old barn on our left. This is a queer building, marked as Morris House on early six inch maps. I’ve known it variously as a ruin, then a bunkhouse and more lately a millionaires des-res project that’s stalled and has now lain empty for years. It looks about another winter away from the weather getting in too. There are warnings of spycams. This is a bleak corner, the wind unchecked, roaring down off Anglezarke moor to rattle the tiles – pretty enough in Summer, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d want to over-winter here.

Past Morris’ we’re onto Dean Head Lane, a narrow cut of a road, water pooling in the reedy hedgrows as it drains from the moor. It’ll take us on to the pretty little village of Rivington eventually, or up by Sheephouse Lane and Hoorden Stoops, to the more populous Belmont. There are fine views of Anglezarke to the north and, further off to the east is Noon and Winter Hill – something shaggy and frigid about them this afternoon though, in spite of the sun, like they’re hung over or still grumpy after the summer heath fires.

yarrow reservoir 7

The path by Dean Wood

At Wilkocks farm (1670), we cut down the path along by Dean Wood which skirts the deep ravine in which the wood nestles. I’ve often fancied a closer look at the wood as legend has it there’s a fine cascade hiding in there, but this place is considered so precious to the region, it’s sealed off and managed as a secure nature reserve – access by permission only, and you’d better have a good reason for asking.

There’s something creepy about the path, an old story about a farm labourer coming along here in the early nineteen hundreds. He felt a “presence” behind him, then turned to see, in his own words, the devil “horns and all”. Terrified, he ran to Rivington and told his tale, swearing all was true. Three months later they found his body at the bottom of the ravine in Dean Wood having apparently fallen from the path around where he claimed to have had his near miss with old Nick.

It’s a story recounted first, I believe, in John Rawlinson’s “About Rivington” and I’ve been careful not to add anything of my own to it here. Writers usually can’t help embellishing where they feel a story lacks detail. What I will say though is reports of such Forteana tend to cluster in the liminal zones, and this one certainly fits that pattern: the open meadows coming down to the edge of the wood, and then the deep ravine itself forming a void of air, all of which  makes for a fine transition from one thing to another.

One theory is we “imagine” such apparitions, but that doesn’t make them any less real, at least not to those experiencing them. On a fine sunny afternoon like this it’s just a story of uncertain vintage – no names, no precise dates, so it’s impossible to research more fully. To my knowledge Old Nick hasn’t been seen again around Dean Wood, but would I come down here at dead of night? Well, let’s just say, I’d be tempted to go another way.

I remember John Rawlinson as a kindly and wise old gentleman – a leading light of the Chorley Historical and Archeological Society, also a good friend of my father’s, both of them a half century gone now, both legends in their own way and loving every inch of the moors hereabouts.

yarrow reservoir 3

Turner Embankment – Yarrow Reservoir

After offering us tantalising glimpses of the forbidden, sylvan delights of Dean Wood, and hopefully avoiding any diabolical disturbance, the path brings us out into open meadows and with a fine view of the Yarrow reservoir, overlooking the somewhat angular Turner Embankment, so named after the house that was demolished to make way for it. Rawlinson tells us the house was most likely salvaged, and the materials put into building Dean Wood house, which nestles in a cosy bower just to our left here. There’s something pleasing about the close-mown lines of the embankment, I think,  with the trees still bare against the sky and the foreground meadows all lit by late afternoon sunshine.

Now we’re off along Dean Wood lane, through a fine avenue of chestnuts, just coming into leaf, and there’s a clear brook tinkling alongside us for company. We can walk on to Rivington from here, perhaps have a brew at the chapel tea rooms, but that’s for another day. Today we’ll take the path around the Yarrow instead, which we could follow pretty much all the way back to the car if we wanted, but if you don’t mind, I want to make a bit of a detour because I can hear the rumble of water and I suspect the spillway is running.

yarrow reservoir 5

The Yarrow Reservoir overflow

The Yarrow spillway is a spectacular feature hereabouts, a series of cascading steps that takes the excess from the Yarrow and feeds it with style into the Anglezarke reservoir. It isn’t often running these days, but there’s a good bit of water today, and it’s always worth a photograph, especially now with the sun settling upon it and adding a golden glow to the highlights.

I try a couple of shots with the lens wide open and manage 1/2000th of a second on the shutter. This has a dramatic effect on the capture of water, freezing it and rendering an image that’s essentially true but something the eye wouldn’t normally see. There must be thousands of shots of these falls on Instagram and Flikr, and a good many of them mine, but I never tire of it.

yarrow reservoir 4

F1.8 – 1/2000 sec

Okay, it’s just a short way now back to Parson’s Bullough and the car. Then it’s boots off, and home for a brew. A pleasant walk in familiar territory, but always something a little different to see.

Just one last look back at that gorgeous spillway, and we’re done:

yarrow reservoir 6

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pooI have a special relationship with the countryside, some might say eccentric, even a little Victorian. I see in it reflections of what the old Romantics would have called the sublime. I am a countryman, I suppose. I was brought up in it, still live in a rural village, and have resisted all my life the siren call and the bright lights and the fast food outlets of the ever encroaching environs of  Urbania. Unlike the countryside, Urbania to my eyes is the same wherever you find it, and it is always growing, always flowing, bustling, hustling, and always blowing out its litter into other people’s hedgerows. And to me, for all of its bright lights, Urbania is void of colour; it is a uniform, uninteresting grey.  You don’t need to go anywhere to find it; stand still for long enough, and it will come to you.

The sublime cannot be found everywhere in the countryside; it is a fickle thing, but for sure it is least likely to found where our constructions, or even our footprints encroach too greedily upon it. This is not to say we are always spoiling nature – we can find ways of living in harmony with it, but more often we don’t try, and the closer the borders of Urbania draw near, the less likely we are to care about such cerebral niceties as abiding in nature, and the quest for the sublime.

Rural communities understand how the moods, and even the shape of the land can inform and uplift the soul. The smaller the community, and the further away from Urbania, the more keenly will the rhythms and the currents of nature be felt. Urbanians though, take a different view. They see nature more as an “amenity”, or a convenient open space, allowing them to do those anti-social activities the towns and cities deny them, even if this is so basic a thing as providing somewhere for their dogs to run and dump (no I really do mean dump), or a convenient slope up which they can take their bicycles and churn the paths to slime on the downward run.

By contrast, the countryman will walk a path and leave no trace of his passing, not a bent twig nor torn piece of moss, nor are you likely to hear him passing. But Urbanians will yelp and squeal and eff and blind their way, and they will spill litter from their pockets as they go, like a trail of breadcrumbs as if they fear getting lost; they will set fire to stolen cars in the back lanes, and they will leave calling cards in the form of little bags of poo.

Yes poo!

rivington pike

Rivington Pike

I have written of the despoliation of Rivington before. Rivington is one of Lancashire’s most celebrated and most visited beauty spots. But visiting it again myself after the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I find matters reaching a crisis point, though I say this every year. The first thing my eyes alighted upon after parking my car and fastening on my boots, was a little bag of poo hanging cheekily from a tree. Beneath, and scattered around it were beercans and plastic bottles. As I moved off, I spied another bag of poo in the grass, another hung from a nail on the fence. More beercans were revealed at every turn, also polythene bags, food wrappers, and of course more little bags of poo.

For those of you not acquainted with this peculiar custom, the poo in question comes from dogs. It is painstakingly collected by their owners, and then hung up for all to see. The poo transcends your normal detritus, which seems scattered more in a careless way indicative of the Urbanian’s normal insensitivity for nature. The poo however is a definite statement, obviously, being all the more carefully arrayed so that it can only be taken as a banner, or a bowel churning war-cry:

“I have been,” it says. “And I shall come again.”

There it hangs, or lies, preserved in its entirety, and for eternity, more bags of poo accumulating week on week of course, until one cannot progress literally more than a few paces without finding yet another one. I have no wish to offend doggie people, am very fond of dogs, and know many responsible owners, but these bags of poo are offensive to a countryman. Human beings have a natural aversion to faecal matter, at least that issuing from the bowels of carnivores, including ourselves, and for the basic reason it is alive with pathogens, and can do us harm.

It must be said this is something of a recent phenomenon. In the long ago, dogs would dump in the open while owners looked blithely on. And there the said pile would steam and fester until the rains washed it away. This is now an offence, punishable by a hefty fine so dog owners must pick up their turds and take them home. It is not a task I would enjoy, speaking personally as a non dog owner, but owners do seem most diligent in this nowadays, placing the faecal matter ever so carefully in a bag, and I’m sure many do then take it home. However, obviously, as any walk around Rivington or indeed anywhere else in the countryside these days will tell you, many do not.

rivington village green

Rivington Village Green

I am at a loss to understand this quirk of human nature. Having done the really hard part, I mean handling it and bagging it, why then hang it up for all to see? Really, it makes no sense! Urbanians please explain! Is this a territorial thing? Are you really at war with us country folk? Cease, or we shall drive our herbivorous cows and sheep into your cities, and create perpetual gridlock!

A walk around Rivington, especially after the Easter Bank Holiday makes me wonder if others believe that care of the countryside is always someone else’s responsibility, that if we leave our beercans, our plastic paraphernalia, discarded underpants, brassieres, prophylactics, fast food cartons, shoes, nappies, and little bags of poo strewn about, someone else will tidy it all away. They won’t. Care of the countryside is everyone’s responsibility, so please take your litter, and your poo home.

Oh, it’s easy to rant, and I shall resist the urge, because there’s an inevitability about it. Such detritus is a natural tide, a line of flotsam that projects beyond the boundaries of Urbania, a high water mark to drown all in its path. To avoid it one must travel further afield than Rivington now. I accept it. I mourn it. It is lost to the greyness.

“What is greyness, please?” asks the passing Urbanian, dog bag at the ready.

It is a lack of colour, a lack of depth, mate. It is the subliminal life drained from nature, as it abuts the incoming tide, its roots shrinking as if at the advance of a glyphosphate spillage. It is in short that bag of dog poo you are for some mysterious reason hanging from a tree.

In response a committee is formed, and we put up a notice claiming the land as “Amenity”, as if its authoritative fonts alone will protect it. Then we put up prohibitive notices, which are themselves as ugly as the things they prohibit. Meanwhile we leave the litter to rot because you have to pay someone in man-hours to pick that up, and why bother when several tonnes more will be deposited as soon as the man goes home.

You can still find places unmarked by bags of poo, but they tend to be where the land is large and scary and the wind blows hard all winter. Only there my friend do Urbanians, and their doggies, fear to tread. I should add here in conclusion I do not mean to imply all town or city dwellers are Urbanians. You don’t have to live in the sticks be a countryman at heart. But remember to be a countryman you must leave no trace of your passing, and that includes taking your dog poo home.

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rivington lakes (1877) - frederick william hulme

The Rivington Lakes – Frederick William Hulme 1872

It’s that season again when the wheel of the year turns to the bottom, or the top, depending on your point of view. November t’ May-brew. In northern climes it’s when our many of our elderly depart for the next life, and we who remain are left nursing the memories of their lives, and of their going. It might be for that reason my steps were drawn to the Yarrow reservoir on Friday – memories of walks with those who are no longer with us. Or it might have been the wind – cold with a kind of hungry despair, and something wet and snowy in it persuading me to stay away from the hill.

It’s about 3 miles round, starting in Rivington village and a favourite walk for when I’m out of sorts, and I can’t tempt myself any further or any higher. I’ve even done this walk at dead of night, with a torch, when I was feeling hemmed in by winter and incessant wet.

Begun in 1867 by the Liverpool Borough Engineer Thomas Duncan, and completed in 1877 by Joseph Jackson, with a bit of help from a nameless and forgotten army of largely Irish labour, the Yarrow is one of a series of reservoirs supplying Liverpool. They were considered a marvel in their day – a combination of Victorian Engineering prowess, and sylvan beauty. The painting by Frederick Hulme (1872) depicts the nearby Anglezarke and the upper and lower Rivington Reservoirs, and though somewhat romanticised, it’s not a bad representation of what you’ll see today if you make the climb up by Lester Mill quarries. The Yarrow reservoir (still under construction at this time) is tucked away, a little higher up on the left of the picture. Nowadays the plantations are much more mature and the reservoirs have bedded into nature nicely. Only in the dry season, when the levels run low do they become ugly.

round rivingtonI prefer a circular walk. There’s something philosophical about it – travelling out, never covering the same ground, yet by a trick of navigation we wind up right back where we started. I’ve a feeling life is like that too. For weather I had hailstones and greenish skies setting out, clearing to brief intervals of a gloomy grey.

There’s a holly tree I know en route, all berry bright, by which I paused, thinking to clip a seasonal sprig. The legality of this is debatable, with townies being surprisingly more pedantic about it than us country folk. I know if everyone clipped the holly there’d be none left to admire by Christmas, but in a couple of weeks that bush will be stripped bare anyway, the holly stuffed into wreaths for sale on the market at £20 a go. Well where else do you think it comes from? So what harm in snipping a sprig for my hall table?

There’s a lot of pagan lore about the holly, and like much pagan lore, dates to about 1954, most of it rather a beautiful, romantic nonsense. It’s a pretty thing at this time of year – the sharp, shiny leaves and the red berry, pitched against the unremitting bleakness of the season. It is about the only thing to brighten our days as the light dims and darkness comes creeping back by mid afternoon. The berries are a terrible purgative – though I do not speak from experience! The wood is beautiful – greenish when stripped, but dries white like bleached bones.

hollyA shaman will leave behind an offering when taking something from nature – a pinch of salt perhaps, or a palm of grain for the wild creatures. But I’m not a shaman, and had brought nothing with me other than my contemplative mood. Should I take the holly? I would be careful with the tree – use a good, sharp knife, take only a few, symbolic sprigs for my hall table. There would be no bark-stripped like a stepmother-jag for infection to seep in – though I surmise the wild holly is a hardy thing and would not take offence.

Just here the land is farmed. A public way crosses the meadow, but the holly bush is tucked down in a little hollow, away from the path. It is, I suppose, for the land holder to strip the holly bush and sell as he pleases, just as his sheep grow fat on the meadow’s sour grass. Even to admire it as I do and take its photograph, involves a short trespass. To actually clip a sprig would be to deprive the holder of his due coinage, and therefore constitute a robbery. He might be an understanding soul and turn a blind eye, or he might not and instead call down a rain of pedantry on my head. But the cops would be a while in coming; it’s remote up here and windy-wild. They might have sent a chopper I suppose, but at around a £1000 an hour I wager they would not think a sprig of holly worth the scramble. I’d be sure to make it home Scott free with my prize.

I imagine the ancient ones decorating their huts with holly as the days slide down to the solstice. Similarly I imagine they decorated their huts with heather in late summer. Perhaps they uprooted the slippery white bluebell bulbs from the woodland to plant around their huts too. Nature would have been more to us in those days. It would have been our only calendar, accurate to plus or minus a week or so and good enough for the times. Nowadays nature is nothing – the wide spaces fenced off and, in monetary terms, useful only as a resource for sheep to graze upon. Meanwhile we wander blind, not even knowing if the moon runs to dark or bright.

Well do you?

The reservoir was mostly empty – a grim tide-line of stones, sucked down in ugly mud, a shallow puddle of brown at the bottom. Terrifyingly deep, these reservoirs, when you see them drained like this, and deathly cold. The embankments are grassed and neatly mown. I spied a courting couple sitting out upon the Turner embankment, as if for a summer picnic. This was a bolder trespass than mine, though I would be the last to tell them.

My mother would pick holly each November to decorate her little house. She did it as a girl in wartime, and it was a tradition she carried on until her later years, when arthritis finally rendered walking even to the kitchen sink a terrible ordeal. Yet she would insist on brewing tea for my visits, brushing aside all offers of assistance.

Sharp. Prickly if not handled with respect. Hardy. Bright eyed.

Like the holly.

Yet I recall she was not so disabled that “Authority” saw fit to grant her the ease and dignity of a blue badge, then she might have parked closer to the doors of the supermarket. If the kitchen sink was a struggle, what was two hundred yards of busy carpark? Twice she was rejected, and even further rebuffed with advice that any appeals would be futile. I remember it well – also her stoic acceptance, and saying she would manage somehow. I can only think those who carry their blue badges, yet seem able to walk into the supermarket perfectly well, were more articulate in their application than she. Still, these are hard times for authority – budget cuts and all that. She was a proud woman, my mother – that she even applied for the damned thing was a measure of her need. She died as she lived: quietly, independently and invisible to the world, except to those she loved. It’s a good way to be.

A strange season of life, this: both parents gone on ahead of me now.  By chance I had my pocketknife with me. Grand things Swiss Army knives.

rivington village green

Rivington Village Green

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rivington pike

Rivington Pike

Rivington Pike, altitude 1191 feet, an instantly recognisable blip in the Western Pennines. When I was growing up in Coppull, my bedroom looked out upon this whole swathe of moor from Great Hill to Lomax Wife’s Plantation, and bang in the middle of it rose Rivington Pike. I knew it in all its seasons, from summer green to winter snow. These are the hills of home for me, instantly emotive, and home will always be anywhere in sight of their profile, which unfortunately isn’t where I’m living now. For much of my boyhood I had an astronomical telescope trained upon the Pike through which I could plainly make out figures ascending and descending. The colours were washed out, and the images would wobble with heat quake and the passing of tractors on the lane behind our house, but it seemed a magical thing and I loved that intimate connection with the hill.

Up close however, it’s not the most attractive of places, not nowadays. It suffers terribly from littering, and the pressures of being a piece of green within easy reach of several million people. That said, it’s been a regular walk of mine this year. In fact you’ll find me here most Friday afternoons nowadays. I’ll have a bacon and egg butty at the Great House Barn tea rooms, around 1:30 pm, then from about 2:00 pm, push myself up the couple of hundred meters of ascent from Rivington Hall. I usually go by way of the Higher house carpark, then snake my way up by the Pigeon Tower, take in the Pike, then descend by various routes through the glorious ruins of the Chinese gardens, part of the former Leverhulme estate.

pike june 2014

The Pigeon Tower, Rivington

Something is happening to me this year, and I don’t know what it is. I don’t think I need to be afraid of it because the feeling is like relaxing as a door opens, rather than panicking in case a door closes. When I started out in the winter, this route would suck the energy right out of me, have me bent over and rasping for breath at every turn in the way. Now I can make it with just a couple of stops, time to feel the air cooling the sweat on my back, as I scan the western horizon through binoculars, and celebrate the start of another weekend.

It feels good, this change in me.

I drove up in the Mazda today. I can hardly call myself eco-friendly, being the owner of two cars now. The Mazda cost me £500 last night, a full set of pads and disks and a new caliper on the nearside rear, because it was leaking fluid. In other words, it was a serious pain in the wallet, but it seems I’ll forgive this car anything, because I barely blinked as I slotted my card into the machine. Had it cost me a grand, I’d still have paid up with a smile, just for the way this car makes me feel. By contrast I’ve resented every penny I’ve spent on my other vehicle, a seven year old Astra, which I use as a commuter mule, clocking up around 12,000 a year, simply earning a living. There’s something interesting in my duplicity here and I want to get at it this evening.

I’m stuck on this quote at the moment – it’s from the Talmud, but I got it from Eckhart Tolle – we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are. I think it’s true, but I’d change it slightly, and say that we see the world , not as it is, but as we see ourselves, and for a long, long time, I’ve seen myself as this sensible, reliable, grey commuter mule, when what really I am, and what I have always been at heart is this small, fast, blue sport’s car, built more for fun than to be subsumed by the grey world. I’m sorry, but there it is. This is the real me. It seems I have spent my whole life being practical and dull; now I wan tot to be frivolous, fun and Romantic.

The sky was an oppressive grey this afternoon. Something thundery about it too as I climbed the badly eroded track towards the Pigeon Tower, But the air had too much of a coolness about it for the weather to be a real threat. Getting struck by lightning is a genuine hazard in the hills at this time of year, so it pays to watch the skies, but I could tell it was just bluffing this afternoon. Further south of me, in the heart of England, the Glastonbury rock concert, just getting under way, was  suspended and the stage cleared as lightning split the sky. Meanwhile I sat on the Pike, sheltering from a stiff eastrly, watching a guy playing Frisbee with his dog.

Poetry features large these days. I write it and I read it – not the poets of old, nor the famous contemporary bards, but the amateur poets I follow on WordPress, and who somehow get under my skin. It makes me realise I am not alone in what I feel. Everyone else feels it too. It’s just that some are better at expressing it than others, but all are capable of expressing it – this thing I feel. It’s half way between rage and confusion, that I am here and I don’t know why – rage and confusion that I too am compelled to express myself.

There was a wedding reception at Rivington Hall. As I set out on my climb, I saw the bride in her white dress, and all the pretty bridesmaids as they arrived, like exotic orchids displayed against a background of dull olive. On my return from the Pike, as I pulled off my boots and sank back into the snug capsule of the Mazda, I heard the rousing cheers from the toast and recalled my own wedding, twenty five years ago next month. Another young couple starting out; a stage of life; children next; then the death of aged parents, aunts, uncles. I look at the group photograph from that wedding and note each time the passing of yet more faces, year on year.  At some point all will be gone, including my wife and I, and all that will remain is the potential of that one special day which led to the births of my own children, who will each enter marriage and hear those same cheers that celebrate it.

It’s a passing on, of sorts; a natural cycling of life.

I drove home over the moors, up the stiff climb by Lester Mill Quarries, the Mazda climbing like a rocket and leaving the cockey van driver who’d been pushing me since Rivington floundering in bottom gear and a haze of blue diesel fumes. Then it was Jepsons Gate, under glowery skies, and down by White Coppice. It had begun to rain by this time, so I couldn’t drop the top like I’d wanted. She’s noisier with the top up, but no less fun. She also stops better now for having fixed the brakes, which I knew were shot. I’m fitting into her better as well. I’ve pushed the seat right back, so my left leg is stretched fully when I press the clutch. I’m a lot smoother through the gears, and she doesn’t bounce off the clutch like she used to. At home, I dried her off with an old towel to keep the humidity levels down in the garage, because I don’t want her rotting from the inside out. She is a dream I want to preserve as long as possible, and its nice to have a car once more that I enjoy pampering, and the means to pamper her.

I repeat, I am not a grey commuter mule. The Astra, old Grumpy, stands outside in the rain tonight and must take its chances. What I am inside is this small, blue, sports car. I shelter it, and cherish it, not for what it is, but for how it makes me feel. I have seen myself as a grey commuter mule for far too long. So take care  how you see yourselves, and make sure your vision is true, because how you see yourself is how you’ll see the world.

And the world is not grey. It’s definitely  blue.

mazzy at rivington

Mazzy, Rivington Hall Drive, Summer 2014

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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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