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alcock tarn 2The mountain tarns of the Lake District are as worthy an objective for a day’s hike as the mountaintops, particularly as we age and begin to linger longer in appreciation of their character. Once a curiosity glimpsed in passing en route for a lofty summit cairn, I now collect them in the same way I once bagged peaks. A mountain tarn is indeed a special place, bringing something of the sky down to the earth, mirroring the mood of both the day and the man.

Alcock tarn sits on a shelf above Butter Crags. Beyond it rises the massive grassy flank of Heron Pike, one of several summits on the Fairfield Horseshoe route. Look east from Grasmere and the tarn lies hidden, about half way up that wall of green, just above the highest reach of the pernicious bracken. On paper, it makes for a decent half-day’s walk, though somewhat steep, but all walks yield more on the ground than their paper promises, and so it is with Alcock tarn. At just over 1100 feet, it’s a modest enough climb, but I wouldn’t underestimate it.

My guide to the tarns of Lakeland is the water-colourist, William Heaton Cooper. He describes it as a modest and pleasant sheet of water, a mirror of the distant sky, as one looks southward towards the lowlands, Windermere and the sea. An experienced mountaineer, and native of Cumberland, Heaton Cooper would use this walk as an introduction to the fells for anyone new to him and whose “mountain form” was unknown.

I’m not sure what he would have made of me. My mountain form is best described as sluggish these days. Though I’m up a hill most weeks now, the ascent from the foot of Greenhead Ghyll was a “several stopper”, sometimes hands on knees, sometimes in full rest mode on sit mat and with binoculars drawn. My consolation lay in the knowledge that the fellsides here are uncommonly steep, and an ascent is always harder when walking alone.

The weather in the valleys was gloomy-hot, cloud base scraping 1500′, truncating the tops and trapping the heat to make a very steamy day. Humidity was 85%, so it was a very sweaty climb. A sleepy clag hugged the fellsides, ghost-horses drifting down. A light rain had me pulling on my new walking jacket, but its breathability soon proved to be disappointing; before I’d climbed a hundred feet I was wet from the inside out. And hot. Even the rain that day was warm.

The fells were silent, just the sound of my own breath on the ascent. I was thinking of my uncle as I climbed, a veteran of Dunkirk. Following the evacuation he spent the years up to 1945 training in the mountains around Fort William, with the Highland Light Infantry. By the time he embarked for Normandy, he told me he and his mates were like stags. Their mountain form must have been akin to superhuman, and a thing to be envied, though not of course the task that lay ahead of them.

I paused to rest below Butter Crags, once I’d cleared the thickest of the bracken. Bracken is a notorious habitat for sheep ticks, carriers of Lyme disease, and I’ve read they’re on the rise in the Lakes, but have yet to encounter any myself. The only problem I have with it is there’s nothing like pushing your way through its wet ferny fronds for soaking you to the skin. It also stinks at this time of year.

From there, the vale of Grasmere glowed without sun, something luminous in the mown meadows, far below, and which warmed an otherwise sleepy grey. I could see DunmaiI Raise, the steep climb of the ever busy A591 carrying tourists over the pass, on to Thirlmere and beyond. Dunmail was the last true native Celtic King. He met his end in a battle with the Saxons and the Scots in 945. Routed, his surviving clansmen rescued his crown and fled with it up the nick of Raise Beck and on to Grisedale tarn, where they hurled it beneath the dark waters for safe keeping.

King Dunmail rests in the huge pile of stones at the summit that bears his name, and by which there now flash thousands of careless cars every day. But once a year, the spirits of his clansmen return with the crown and bang on the cairn, wakening their sleeping King, and urging him to take up the crown once more. Each time he tells them the time has not yet come. Other more prosaic accounts have him dying on a pilgrimage in 975. I prefer the former myth which has something archetypal about it, like an Arthurian legend. But then the Celts  were always better story tellers than the Saxons.

I remember the climb to Grisedale tarn up Raise Beck. I did it in 1993, on a wild day in the company of friends. We went on to climb Helvellyn. The mountain was dark and angry, snow spiralling in a finger numbing, aggressive wind, and there was a feeling as we climbed, of coming to the world’s end. It was a Saturday afternoon, March 20th, the day the IRA bombed Warrington. I heard of it on the car radio, on the drive home. They had left two devices in rubbish bins on Bridge Street, a crowded shopping centre. The first device drove panicking survivors into the path of the second device. Fifty four were injured, two young boys killed. There were lots of bombings on the mainland throughout the course of the troubles, but that one was closest to home for me, and will be for ever associated with that climb up Raise Beck and onto an angry mountain.

It was an evil day.

The tragic overtones of Grizedale Tarn are carried on in the story of the Brother’s Parting Stone. It was here in 1800 William Wordsworth last said farewell to his brother, John. John was leaving Cumberland to take up command of a British East Indiaman, the Earl of Abergavenny, into which he had sunk his fortune. The vessel was lost off Portland Bill, and John drowned. Some say the event marked a steady decline in Wordsworth’s poetry.

But anyway, on to Alcock tarn!

It comes upon one suddenly, a pleasant sheet of water, as Heaton Cooper says, reedy at its northern end, and a mirror for a steely sky. Looking south along its length it forms an infinity pool, the great sliver ribbon of Windermere and the southern Lakes beyond. I’d seen not a soul all morning, but here I came upon pair already settled in with sketchbooks and watercolours. The mountains held their breath, the only sound was a lone duck dabbling in mud among the reeds at my feet. I fired off a rare haiku tweet to that effect but it felt cheap and shallow compared to the deeply patient deliberations of these two artists. All is not lost, I was thinking, that there are those still willing and able to take the time for al-fresco water-colouring.

I gave them space, waved to let them know I was harmless, then settled down to ponder over my notebook and a poem for which the muse had delivered the first two lines complete the night before, and left me to fill in the blanks. But the words would not come, and the silence was eventually broken by a party of talkers which put an end to my deliberations. They sat down not five yards from me, a flock of gassy old birds, treating me to a voluble warts and all expose of their various intimate lives and which sent the lone duck off in search of quieter waters. They had not seen me. My walking gear has morphed from fashionable fluorescence to unobtrusive greens over the years. With my hood pulled up, monk-like and sitting still in a little clutch of crags, I had apparently vanished, blurred out of the misty, muggy world, so that when I later rose to pack my things away, I gave one old bird a satisfying fright.

Sorry, dear, but I was there first.

Perfect as a circular walk, the route continues south, becoming quite airy on the descent, then fast losing itself in the densely forested glades above Town End, and the broad, well made tracks that lead you unerringly home. A couple of quiet hours up, then an hour down brings you back to the bustle of the many-peopled Wordswortharium.

I took coffee in the garden-centre cafe, and pondered the old Celtic legends. King Dunmail has been a long time dead now, and I wondered at the meaning of his clansmen keeping faith with him year on year. I wondered too what counsel he might offer in addition to his persistent procrastination as regards his throne. For me, I realised, while taking that break on the climb to Alcock tarn, he had pointed out the long lay-by beside the 591.

“Next time you come here, lad,” he said, “Get up a bit earlier. Park your car there in future, for free! And stop moaning about Broadgate Meadow!”

I shall.

It seems I have friends in high places!

alcock tarn

Alcock Tarn, Grasmere, Cumbria

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portrait of the artists wife - La Thangue - 1859-1929I posted a letter today. Not much to comment on about that, you might think, except the whole experience of that letter has given me pause. I wrote it with a pen on plain A4 paper – four sheets, two for the letter, and a further sheet each for a poem. No, I wasn’t submitting work to a publisher – heaven forbid, and thank goodness those days are over! It was to a friend of a friend, an amateur poet, like me, but of an older generation for whom the idea of email, or blogging, or indeed any form of digital communication are alien concepts. She had written to me before Christmas, a personal hand-written letter, and I had felt awkward responding with impersonal print.

So, out came the Harvey Makin pen, (note shameless brand-dropping) I had thought it a somewhat redundant Christmas present to myself, since I rarely “write” anything with a pen at all these days. But suddenly, there I was, pen poised over a sheet of paper. (£16.99 from the local garden centre – the pen, not the paper). I don’t know who Harvey Makin is, and forgive me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like an “antique” brand targeted at the old fuddy-duddy traditional types, who frequent garden centres on wet winter Sundays, while hiding its usual ultra-modern Chinese manufacture. But the pen has a good weight, and makes a smooth mark. Yes, Harvey Makin, whoever he is, made the writing of that letter feel special. He added a sense,… of occasion.

I did cheat, however.

It seems I have forgotten how to write spontaneously. I sat a while staring at that first sheet of virgin paper, afraid to make a mark because, well,… a pen-mark is not deletable – there are no second chances, no back-tabbing. Short of a clean sheet, we have no choice but to plough on, once we have begun. So, I drafted it first on the computer before copying it all down by hand – rather a backwards way of working, but never mind.

The first thing I noticed was how inefficient the written word is, compared with print. What had been a few column inches of 12 point type on the computer screen expanded like crazy-foam to fill two sheets of A4 in no time at all. Perhaps the sheer physical volume of the hand-written word discouraged a verbosity in olden times to which we are more prone today. The other thing I noticed was how using a pen for anything more substantial than a shopping list makes your hand and arm stiffen painfully.

Stamps are quite expensive things now – 60p for first class. I’m not sure how much it costs to send an e-mail, but it must be fractions of a penny. Demand for hand-written letter deliveries is falling. We’re therefore losing economies of scale, so the price of stamps must go up still more, thus further hastening the decline of posted letters to the point where the post boxes are being decommissioned and all the postman brings me these days, apart from my online purchases, is machine franked junk.

That stamp added a seal of something to the envelope, conferring upon its contents a degree of worth they perhaps did not deserve. It also got me thinking about the slower snail-mail way we used to do things. It got me thinking too about that box of love letters in the attic.

My girlfriends wrote good letters, their handwriting always so much better than mine. And stamps, looking so quaint in their design, and the Queen so young, perhaps even moistened by a kiss – the stamps, not the Queen – still have the power to fire the imagination. I mean, that these women should have taken the trouble to sit with pen and paper, and aching hand, spontaneously expressing themselves, without back-tabbing or endless redrafting,.. and it’s not without significance – at least to me – that they thought of me, while they wrote! My last love letter is dated 1986, marking the end of an affair. It echoes fresh from long ago, and bitter-sweet memories rise anew from the flow of a woman’s hand, porting me back in time a quarter of a century. Ah,… the abiding magic of the written word!

Emails by contrast, I tend not to keep. They lack gravity, and personality.

It’s a pity – this decline in the hand written form – though inevitable, I suppose. But we have learned so much about the lives of others through their letters, ribbon bound and kept in shoe-boxes, preserved as each the encapsulation of a moment from that person’s life. Now the world is criss-crossed with invisible aether-channels into which we tap with our devices – devices to which we are enslaved, emailing, blogging and tweeting our sweet nothings – things of no import and to nobody in particular – and which can be so easily deleted to save precious cloud-space, or embarrassment. What shall we leave for future historians to ponder? Will our blogs, our emails, our tweets, still be around a hundred, two hundred years from now?

The letter sat upon my desk for a few days while I found the opportunity to take it to the post-box. And as the time passed, it assumed a more self-important air – those contents, sealed with gum, seeming to mature within, and the address so boldly displayed, a magical incantation that would speed my missive to its goal. I posted it this morning, outside the Post Office in town – pushed it, after a momentary pause, into the red pillar box with the official markings, gave it up into the care of the almighty postal system. It’s a system that’s been establishing lines of communication, and mapping out the bounds of civilisation, for centuries, but seems suddenly anachronistic. In a generation, it will be gone, this way of doing things.

I had not realised.

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I’ve been a follower of the development of computer technology for as long as there have been computers. My 1984 HND dissertation was on “the use of computers in the solving of problems in mechanical engineering” – oh, heady days – and was based upon the somewhat primitive computers of the day – including my own Sinclair Spectrum. The conclusions I drew back then were that computers had their uses but the engineer had to be discerning and not fall into the trap of specifying a computer’s use simply because it sounded sexy, when a pen and paper would yield a more efficient result.

I still measure the development of technology in these terms, and try to separate its true potential from its often overhyped promise. The early pioneers of the personal computer envisioned us using these things to control our home appliances, heating, security,… things that have yet to capture the public’s imagination, while things they never imagined – like the internet, and email – now dominate our workaday lives. I’m therefore always a bit slow in jumping on the next bandwagon, wondering first if it’s heading in the direction I’m interested in or not. I have a Facebook account, but admit I’ve not really made sense of this medium yet and can boast only one friend (thank you Marie). I guess writers of my kind are simply not gregarious enough to make use of its networking potential.

And Twitter?

Well, Twitter has been on my list of intrigues for a while now – for those of you not familiar with it, it’s like micro blogging – you upload a very short message to your Twitter account – 140 characters – called a tweet. You can do it from your computer, but also from your mobile ‘phone. Much of the early information that came out of Libya regarding its disintegration escaped the state media blackout and came to us via the tweets of ordinary souls swept up in the chaos. I found this deeply moving and impressive – information and communication in the hands of ordinary people shaping world events via a medium that had yet to turn even a dollar’s profit. At the other end of the scale we also have the great and the good getting their secretaries and PR minders to tweet their selective thoughts, or their carefully sanitized itineraries to their fanbase via that same medium. This is of less use of course, though transparent enough to the intelligent.

But what of the ordinary soul?

“I filled up my car with petrol today and it cost me £1.35/L” Good tweet? Interesting? Important? Hardly. There’s a lot of tweeting going on and in the great cacophony of sound, the humble tweet can seem rather pathetic. If you’re poetically inclined, you can massage your tweet into something resembling an Haiku, but really unless someone knows you’re there your profound, Zen-like Haiku is lost like so much noise in the background.

What use then is Twitter to the ordinary soul? Well,… if you have any kind of interests, you can follow the tweets of those who share your interests. In this way, logging in  to your Twitter account you can see at once what others in your field have stumbled across, enabling you to follow up useful leads on the internet – a bit like listening to gossip, I suppose. In practical terms I’ve found it focusses your web-surfing.

If you’re a writer there’s no reason not to tweet. Sure, no one will read it, but then who are you writing that personal diary for? It doesn’t matter. If it strikes you tweet it.

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