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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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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mazzy at glasson 2019

Small blue car, Glasson Basin

It was unseasonably warm, this, the last Friday of February, temperatures nudging seventeen degrees and a spring tide almost cutting off the village of Glasson. The little blue car and I are here again for our annual groundhog day. I first came in 2014, but that morning was a cold day, a winter’s day, and there was ice on the car park. Today was summery, balmy and weird. There have been years when I didn’t get the top down until April. That’s natural, today wasn’t.

I’m dressed for winter, five sensible layers and a hat. I have binoculars, camera and a Lion Bar. The plan is the same as always: walk south across boggy meadows to Cockerham Marsh, then pick up the Lancashire coastal way which leads us back to Glasson, then a brew before we paste it back home.

I’m not feeling too good, a bit of a cold breaking, so my head is woolly and there’s a fatigue hanging over me, but I’ll manage. Yes, the weather is weird, and I’m tying my coat around my waist before we’ve gone a mile, but the warmth in it is undeniably cheering. A few weeks ago we had snow.

marsh end farm

Bank End, Cockerham

Cockerham Marsh never fails to impress, one of Lancashire’s jewels – the glittering expanse of it, the greenness and the dendritic channels all patiently fished and swooped over by oystercatcher and curlew. There were murmurations of dunlin and starling too, animating a sky lit generously by a low winter sun, and with all the warmth of spring in it. I’m thrilled by the rapture of birds here as they wade and gambol out of reach of man. As I watch I find myself wondering if, when we’ve poisoned ourselves from the last corners of the planet, the birds will find a way to survive and preserve in themselves what is truly beautiful about the world.

And then it’s the coastal path and the green sward by the old abbey where the land stops and tumbles sedately into the sea, then the call of lambs in sheep-thick meadows, and the final push up a summer-sleepy Marsh Lane to Glasson. All of this in February.

lancashire coastal way

The Lancashire Coastal way, Cockerham

I get a brew at the Lock Keeper’s Rest, by Glasson Basin, settle on a bench in the sun, among the born-again bikers. I’m joined by an old dude who tells me it’s a shame they closed the pub. He speaks with the direct intimacy of an old friend. He’s just lonely for a chat, I suppose. He goes on to complain about the salt water he’s had to drive through on the way into Glasson, as if it’s someone’s fault, and how it’s no good for a car. Then it’s the price of a pint and a football ticket, his opinion amply expressed by a weary shake of the head. I ask him how long since they closed the pub, not that I’m interested, but it looks like he’s settling in and thus far it’s been a bit one-way. He seems not to understand the question, bites his lip and looks at me askance, as if I’ve offended him and he bumbles off to sit alone.

On the drive home there’s a near accident on the humped bridge over the canal at Garstang, a learner driver is approaching it cautiously, but then caught unawares by an insane hardcore wagon which appears suddenly, rising like Poseidon from the deep and steaming over the bridge at full tilt. The wagon screeches to a halt, inches from disaster, sends up a cloud of dust and is unable to move unless the learner reverses, but the learner is frozen with shock, as am I.

The hardcore driver is not a patient sort and is effing and blinding at once. The passenger gets out, the learner hastily slides over. The hardcore man continues to sully the air with foul and insulting language: You can’t drive, you’re an idiot, you shouldn’t be on the road – that sort of thing.

“Learning, mate,” says the passenger, hands wide, in a placatory tone, then points out the L plates. You know? Cut us some slack. Be patient.

But the hardcore man takes this as a challenge to his superiority. The cab door is flung open, and a tense standoff ensues. The queue for the bridge is dozens of vehicles deep in both directions by now, but we must all await the pleasure of the hardcore troll, captive audience to his vile strutting. Does he commit assault on an innocent man? mangle his car for good measure and expect us all to applaud him? The learner car backs up as quickly as possible in order to avoid fisticuffs. The hardcore man, still puffed up hurls parting curses, then thunders away to wreak havoc elsewhere.

I follow the L plate into Garstang, thinking to myself the learner will probably never want to get behind the wheel of a car again, scarred for life by an ill timed encounter with the troll. A troubling day of sorts then, mostly beautiful, but in a weird sort of way, overlaid by something surreal, courtesy of my being under the weather, and there’s an aftertaste of threat that’s been hard to shake – the un-seasonal weather suggestive of climate catastrophe, and the latter incident indicative of an increasing and vociferous intolerance among our people.

The principal threat to the natural world of course has always been the human being which seems incapable of acting in harmony with it, while the biggest existential threat to the human being, apart from an asteroid impact, has always been human beings themselves, and their propensity to act first in preservation of their own misguided sense of superiority, to the detriment of more altruistic virtues.

Anyway, mind how you go and beware of those thundering hardcore wagons.

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canal parbold_edited

The Leeds-Liverpool canal at Parbold, Lancs.

I was out along the canal yesterday with my camera. There were the usual canal-side scenes: houseboats moored-up, ropes taut, cosy curls of smoke rising from squat chimneys. There was a bridge, a windmill, an old canal-side pub, and a low, wintry sun scattering yellow stars across mud coloured water. It was late afternoon with a clear, pale sky, but little energy in it, and it was cold. I took around twenty shots, but none came out the way I saw them. They lacked detail, seemed flat, with a compressed range of tones. Indeed, I might have done as well with my phone – and my phone’s not great.

This tells me two things, both probably true: One, I’ve still a way to go before I learn how to handle that camera properly and, two, my imagination tends to over-paint a scene in ways a camera can never capture, that when we see the world as human beings, we are seeing it through more than just the eyes. There is also an inner vision we project, a thing comprising the warp of imagination and the weave of emotion, like a net we overlay upon the world – and it’s this that breathes life into our experience.

Still, I tell myself the lens was sluggish, that it might be fine in a part of the world with an abundance of light, say in the tropics, but on a winter’s day in Lancashire, even wide open at F3.5, it’s going to struggle, that my pictures will always be as flat and muddy as the canal’s water. So I’ve coppered up, and ordered another camera, second hand this time, but with a much faster lens, indeed the finest of lenses, a Leica lens. I’m thinking that if I can only let in more light, I can get closer to things the way I see them.

It won’t work of course. I already have several decent cameras and another one isn’t going to change anything because what I’m chasing here are ghosts. Only rarely do people photograph ghosts, and when they do, it’s likely the result is faked, like my header picture was faked in Photoshop to bring out the light and the detail to some resemblance of how I remembered it.

And there’s another problem. Take a look on Instagram, or Flikr, and you’ll see great volumes of images that already depict the world in powerful ways, volumes that are being added to every second of the day. I’ve been taking pictures nearly my whole life, yet probably only captured a few scenes that are a match for any of the millions of beautiful images that exist already. Do I really imagine, when I put a picture up on Instagram I will make the world hold its breath, even for a moment?

No. And this isn’t really about others anyway.

What I’m seeking is a reflection of myself in an abstraction of shape and colour and light. I look at the sizzling detail in the finest photographs of yesteryear and wish I could render my world as crisply alive as that. Lenses hand-ground a hundred years ago seem, in the right circumstances, and in the right hands, to far surpass anything I can approach with the most modern cameras of today. I want to get down to the very atoms of creation, you see? I want to focus them sharply and with a depth of field that stretches from the tip of my nose to the edge of the universe. Why? Well, given enough accurate information, perhaps I’ll be capable of understanding the puzzle of creation, or at least my own part in it.

I know, I have a tendency to over-romanticise.

It was a quest that began forty years ago. I sought it in those days with my father’s old Balda, a 120 film camera, from the 1940’s. It had a queer, knocked lens that gave a strange, closely overlapping double image. But as I grew older and began to earn money, I sought it with a long string of 35mm SLRs, through several thousand frames of Fujichrome. And then I abandoned all that for the miracle of digital and a one megapixel Kodak, even though that wasn’t quite the miracle we’d hoped for – just the beginning of another technology arms race I waited a quarter century to catch up to the quality of my Olympus OM10 – which some bastard nicked from my car in 1986. And now, when even twenty five megapixels fails me, I look for it in the gaps, under the microscope of Photoshop, under the shifting moods attainable by all that digital fakery, and I look for it under the soft blown smears of inadequate shutter speed, and the promise of a tripod next time.

But in all of this, the most valuable lesson photography has taught me is the irrelevance of equipment, of technology, of technique, indeed also the fallacy of seeking to record the spirit of the earth at all, to say nothing of the ghost-like reflection of oneself in it. But this is not to dismiss the art altogether, for at least when we settle down, say in the midst of a spring meadow with our camera to await just the right fall of light, – be it with a 1940’s squinting Balda or last year’s Nikon – we slow time to the beating of our hearts, we open up the present moment, and we re-establish a sense of our presence in the world.

Only when we focus down, say on the texture of a tree’s bark, or on the translucent quality of a broad Sycamore leaf when the glancing sun catches its top, do we sense the aliveness of nature and our aliveness within it. Only then do we remember what beauty really is and how it feels as it caresses our senses. Only then do we realise the best photographs of all are the ones we do not take, but the ones we remember. And we remember them because, through photography, we have learned to take the time to look with more than just our eyes, to not just see the world, but feel it in our bones.

Still, I may be wrong, in which case I’ve still got high hopes for that Leica lens.

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malham tarn

Malham Tarn

It was a good day for a wedding on Saturday. I note the Capital was considerably taken up with it, streets lined with people waving their little Union Jacks at the happy couple. Celebrities from around the world descended in their finery. There was pomp and ceremony and tradition, as only the British can deliver it, and I’m informed a good day out was had by all.

I missed it. I was up around Malham, in company with most of the north of England, who’d had the same idea. Perhaps we each selfishly thought the roads would be quieter, that everyone else would be at home, glued to the telly, but I’ve never seen Malham as busy, and this before midmorning when I rolled up in the little blue car to find an atmosphere of celebration. I say this every time I go to Malham, that I’ve never seen it so busy. Best to go early, crack of dawnish, even midweek. But there was no big event, certainly no big screen coverage of the capital’s shenanigans. Everyone had simply gone up for a walk, or a picnic, or to sit outside the Buck with something cold and fizzy, and watch the world go by.

Malham sits at the foot of one of the classic walks in the British Isles, a circular route of limestone country that’s by turns fearsomely dramatic, and heart-stoppingly beautiful. It’s rightly popular, also a small wonder it can take this amount of foot traffic every weekend without wearing away.

I couldn’t park in the village itself and was reluctant to commit to the overflow field, so drove on up to the Tarn where I got the last spot on the little car park. But the as the area’s popularity soars exponentially, the driving is becoming dangerous. The road up is single track and steep. I can thread the little blue car along mostly anything and she’s plenty of guts for a climb, but it’s what you meet along the way that’s the problem. And you’re meeting more and more traffic these days, a lot of it inappropriate for the girth of the road. I met a Renault Kadjar. This is a huge vehicle. I wouldn’t take a bus up here, and I wouldn’t take a Kadjar for the same reasons. I managed to pull in, narrowly avoiding the drystone walls, to let it pass. It wasn’t for stopping and the driver didn’t seem able to manoeuvre it much anyway – just kept going sluggishly and expecting everyone else to move out of the way.

Then I met the cyclists, weaving about, doing one mile an hour crawling up this one in ten gradient ahead of me. The little blue car won’t do one mile an hour uphill, it judders and bucks on the clutch, but you can’t roar past because the road’s too narrow and you’re worried about meeting Kadjars around the blind bends. You have to wait for the straight bits, then floor it and hope for the best. I have the feeling recreational cyclists don’t fully appreciate the risks they take in places like this, nor the hazards they create for others, or they would stow their egos and their single-minded battle with the grade, get off their push-hogs and let us poor motorists pass on little roads like this.

The tarn is the northernmost checkpoint of the full circular walk, and I wondered about doing it in reverse, but this puts the steepest of climbs towards the end, besides it was a hot day and I couldn’t be bothered. I wanted to soak up the atmosphere of the Dales without soaking myself in sweat, so I took a stroll, by the tarn, which was impossibly blue under an equally impossibly blue sky. Then I headed down to Malham Cove, along the Trougate track. At the cove it was standing room only among the clints and grikes, and the cacophony was reminiscent of any mass social gathering in an echoey place.

I returned along the spectacular Watlowes dry valley. Three or four miles all told. Lazy I know, and such a short outing wouldn’t have satisfied my younger self much, but times change and I’m as excited these days by the sight of early flowering purple orchid as I am by the ascent of Goredale. Conditions were outstanding, but sadly walkers were too many, clogging the trails, either powering up behind, sucking impatiently on their Platipus Packs, or loitering in front for selfies along the narrow bits. But I was happy to be out in the sun, celebrating the season, celebrating the country, taking my turn on the steps, calling hello in passing to pleasant strangers. And no one here was waving a Union Jack.

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mazda at glassonThe last Friday of February is the one that usually kicks off my year, and for the past four years I’ve been travelling to the little Lancashire port of Glasson to walk the same section of the coastal way from Bank End Farm, on the spectacular Cockerham Marsh. There’s an element of groundhog day to this outing, underlined by the uncanny similarity of the weather on each occasion – temperature just above freezing, clear skies, wintry sun , and a light but bitterly cold wind blowing in off the sea. Today is no exception, but there’s a difference in the air, a subtle nuance – call it imagination, call it superstition, but I have a feeling this run is coming to a close now, that next year will be different. It has to be. Everything must change if it is to remain true, and whatever does not change cannot be true, thus I’m picking up an element of fantasy to the day which, although pleasant enough, cannot be entirely trusted.

The Mazda was reluctant after a very cold few weeks in the garage, and very little exercise over winter, the engine catching only at the last minute as the battery faded to nothing. Then the ABS warning light remained on throughout the outward journey – brakes were fine, so most likely a problem with the anti-lock sensor. It’s a thing with Mazdas. There’s also a grand’s worth of repairs necessary to her bodywork if I decide to keep her beyond this year. I have the sense she’s reminding me of her mortality. It’s all fixable but she’s a second car, not my main driver, and all of this seems a bit extravagant and unnecessary, especially in the current oppressively austere zeitgeist. It’s a pity because I love the car like no other I’ve owned, and we’ve had some fun, but she’s sixteen years old now, coming up on ninety thousand, and she isn’t going to last for ever. That’s just another fantasy.

Still, for all of our antiquity, we pick up a tail on the way, a Mercedes SLK, brand new. This happens a lot. Last time, as I recall, it was a Maserati. These supercars growl up close, like predatory animals, glue themselves aggressively to the bumper, then, at the first opportunity pull out wide and disappear in a cloud of dust and noise, and all in order to prove their willy is bigger than mine. Now the Mazda is a lively little thing, but the sense of her is mostly internal. She’s also worth next to nothing. That she attracts such attention is laughable, not flattering, and do I really want us to go on being the foil for this particular kind of conspicuous consumption?

The Mazda sighs impatiently at such class-warriorish ruminations, rattles up to Glasson and deposits us on the carpark at the marina. Here we leave her to admire the view, the basin running like burnished silver this morning, boats nodding at their moorings. We tog up and set out on the familiar way, first of all calling in Glasson’s gorgeous canal-side Parish Church to admire the spill of light through stained glass, and to see if there are any good second hand books for sale on the stall at the back. Today there are none that take my fancy, so on we go.

cockerham farmThe walk first takes us south across sodden meadows as far as the lush fractal patterned marsh at Cockerham, from where we pick up the coastal way. Winter wet has left the meadows heavy, and they are slow to drain. Migratory swans pepper the green sward, settling there to rest, and forage. They are not gregarious birds and spread themselves out into introspective, moody dots of white, their grumpy honking a reminder to steer clear. We pick up the more cheerful sound of waders down on the marsh, mostly Oyster Catchers and Curlew piping. There’s a Plover doing acrobatics across the emerald meadow, pee-witting as it goes, and then as we cross the causeway we are treated to the most astonishing display – a vast murmuration of starlings rises from its roost around the farm and swirls a living spiral in the air.

Unlike other birds en-mass which we tend to view from afar, Starlings are an easier treat for the photographer performing it would seem for our pleasure at much closer range, and quite exhilarating . It’s a whirring buzzing chattering shriek of a thing, a pointed cloud swooping and soaring like a single living entity, drawn into strange, pulsing patterns and made entirely of tens of thousands of birds. I am so astonished that by the time I remember the camera, I manage only the weakest of shots as the birds move north.

plover scar lightThe Plover scar light, broken last year after being struck by a ship, is now repaired and looking like new. I try a few shots but the light is suddenly flat and I need a longer lens to do it justice. And the narrow passage across Jansen Pool, where I nearly had to swim in order to complete the walk last year, is now repaired so the path can be followed without risk to dignity. Then there’s just the last long quagmire of Marsh lane and its ancient line of hawthorns, twisted into fantastic wind-blasted shapes, and we’re back – another completed round of Glasson and Cockerham, on the last Friday of February.

Image5It remains only for us to take lunch in the Lantern o-er Lune, from whose brightly lit interior we shelter from the biting wind, and pretend it is a summer’s day. Tasty Cumberland Sausage Panini and a gorgeous salad soothes our lunchtime cravings. Over coffee we gaze out at the water, and we contemplate this particularly lovely and ancient part of Lancashire. Meanwhile the Mazda catches the sun. She looks ever so lovely out there, even shaded and lined as she is by the mud and salt of winter.

Okay, so here’s what we’ll do: We’ll get the ABS repaired first, then see if she’ll squeeze through the MOT into next year without the bodywork doing. It’s a good call, and she rewards us by putting out the ABS light on the way home.

Who says living magically makes no sense?

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avia-peseus

An old cairn marks the end of a moorland spur. Away from the main routes, it’s little visited. We could sit here all day and not see another soul. It’s around noon, warm in the sun. We are lost in thought, ruminating, casting our minds back, running over the details of a tough couple of weeks.

We have a problem. Our magnanimity is crumbling. We feel unappreciated, feel as if we’re at everyone’s beck and call, forever feeding the insatiable demands of the world we inhabit. It’s been going on for years, our whole lives probably, and we are at times resentful we spend most of that time feeding others our energy. It’s like everyone we know is standing there with their mouths wide open and we are shovelling stuff in faster and faster. We are forgetting things now. People are asking us where we’re up to with things we cannot even remember being tasked with. Is this age creeping up, or is our mind so full now we cannot possibly process things any longer? And we are left wondering, who feeds us?

The weeks, indeed the years ahead look similarly frantic and with nothing in the calendar we can point to that we have underlined exclusively for nurturing our own sense of being. We might have had this moment, alone, on the moors, except by now we’ve carried the whole mess up with us, and we are lost in it, thinking about it. We’re exhausted, sleeping poorly, drinking too much,…

It’s a beautiful spot, views out across the plain, as far as the sea. Sunsets from here are magical. But we do not feel the way we once did about any of this. We are no longer present in it, our mind instead locked in the prison of incessant thinking, and much of it negative.

Then we hear a skylark, an exuberant twittering rush of song, hard to ignore as it soars above us. We remember the words of Matsuo Basho:

Above the moor, not attached to anything, a skylark singing,…

It’s the first thing in months to break through and draw us back into self awareness, and for a moment, though we do not realise it yet, we are no longer thinking. Slowly our awareness of the world expands. We notice too there are grasshoppers chirruping, and a gentle breeze like heaven, cool upon our skin. There’s the scent of the moor, the sedge and the reeds and the sphagnum and eons of peat layered beneath us. These sense-impressions are there all the time of course, just mostly shut out by the infernal noise of thinking.

There is no need to concentrate. The world and all the life around us is simply there, and for a time we become effortlessly aware of it. We try a breath or two, deep, slow, and we become aware of the body again, the feel of it heightened in waves by the motion of the breath. It’s like another body, but inside of us and made of a purer, incorruptible energy, an energy whose presence is calmness itself and which provides an anchor against the capricious tug of our thoughts.

Yes, the thoughts come washing back, leaking in, speculative at first, testing the water. There is pain, anxiety, indignation at the rudeness of others, indignation that all the traffic is decidedly one way. Worse, there’s a buzzing from our chest – our damned ‘phone, message received, some jerk has sent a picture of themselves, a goofy grin as they raise a pint of beer. We don’t even know them, yet here they are intruding, someone else demanding our attention. Look at me! Like me! Bolster my self worth! We switch the ‘phone off, set it aside, try to recover our awareness, focus back on the lark’s song,… and the inner body.

Eventually, we notice there are gaps in our thoughts, like the blue sky between clouds. And more, when we expand our awareness we open up a space, a gap between us and whatever we imagine assails us. And what assails us is like a like a yard full of dogs, all yapping to be fed, but now there’s a fence between us and we longer fear their bite if we fail to feed them quickly enough. In another sense the dogs and the anxiety they arouse can be seen as indicative our failure to accept the moment as it, that we desire things to be other than they are. Thus we render ourselves at the mercy of the world and its noisy demands, at the mercy of things over which we have no control, then the world dictates the terms of our unhappiness, and we become exhausted.

But this spaciousness is like an opening now, a conduit to a source of energy both infinite and generous. This is what feed us, and it’s all we need. And as we gaze down upon the land we realise the effortlessness of our awareness, and in the midst of it glimpse the greatest secret of them all, that we are not our thoughts, that we can be free, for a time at least. They are just a story we tell ourselves, a story of the person we believe ourselves to be. But who we really are, who we have always and will for ever be, is the awareness that we are aware. We are the watcher of our thoughts.

The afternoon deepens. We feel rested, magnanimity returns. We become aware of ourselves in the world once more, yet buffered from its excesses. We make our way down from the hill, but slowly, not wanting to break this expansive feeling, nor lose the sound of the lark. We realise half way down our damned phone is still where we left it in the grass, by the cairn. Rain is forecast. Do we go back and get it?

Why should we? It’s old and cheap, and contains only a Pandora’s box of the absurd.

How about a bit of a bit of Vaughn Williams instead?

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