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linton falls

Linton Falls on the River Wharfe

I’d planned to walk on the western coast, Morecambe bay, from Arnside maybe, but the Met office suggested moving the itinerary east a bit to avoid drowning in the tail end of a tropical storm hurled clean across the Atlantic. So the Dales it was and a brief window of opportunity that closed around tea time. Here I enjoyed calm and intermittent blue skies punctuated by showers and dramatic clouds, which eventually thickened over Grassington to a uniform steel grey and a more persistent rain.

The falls at Linton have become a bit of a magnet of late, my third visit this year. £4.50 for the day on the little National Park Authority car park – expensive in these still straightened times, but still half the price of a day’s walk in the Lakes. A week’s rains had swollen the Wharfe to thunderous proportion. People drive for miles for these falls, go no further, and who can blame them? There is falling water everywhere, and a fine wooden bridge to carry you into its most spectacular and sonorous midst. All falls are a draw, each of unique character, and blessed with a spirit of place. At Linton the spirit is that of dragons.

But today the falls were admired only in passing as I made my way up-river. I followed heavy paths to begin, over lush cattle churned meadow, then finally a bit of narrow lane that dropped me down to Conistone and the Dib.

the wharfe

The Wharfe, near Conistone

Limestone country throws up some odd landscape features, none more curious than the Dib, a narrow nick between steep rock  and a secret passage into the higher green beyond. It’s the former course of a beck, now long disappeared, but bears evidence of thunderous erosion in ancient times. It also affords some light scrambling, and a sporting route up onto the Dales way. I last walked its course thirty years ago, thought I remembered the Dib fairly well, but it turns out I didn’t. When I was young, it was those simple little scrambles that fascinated, and I tacked them all together in memory, leaving out a vast and lovely lost vale that separates the beginning bit from the end.

Today it was the vale that most impressed.

dibbs

The Conistone Dib

After scrambling out of the Dib we find ourselves on the Dales Way, just here a gorgeous broad green path that leads you back to Grassington and the Falls – a round of eight and a half miles, and then a couple of days for my bones to recover from the pummelling of wild footways.

There was a peculiar scent on the Dales way. I was upwind of a large group of kids who’d spent days wandering the Dales with big packs, doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s. A charming chatty lot they were too, in spite of being mud-caked and looking like they were ready for a brew, and collectively smelling like,… well, like human beings, sweated by long exertion, and who’d not had the pleasure of a bath for a bit. They looked weary, but determined, and in good humour. I admired their grit, was heartened to discover there are still lions among our youth – sufficient I trust to see off the donkeys who shall oppress them in their near future with tick sheets and performance reviews. So roar! Roar my little ones, roar like you mean it.

The Dales way descends some four miles, gradually to Grassington. This is limestone and green sward at its best, and views out across the Wharfe to Cracoe Fell, and a walk I did one frost dusted morning last December. Scent of mud here, and moorland sedge, something metallic in it, and then rain as the dramatically darkening clouds burst and the wind stiffens to the coming storm’s refrain.

I continue to follow my nose as the scent of the farm comes up at me, a good mile off yet, but the air sweetened with the unmistakable aroma of cattle en-masse, and midden. And then it’s the slick cobbles of Grassington and the scent of coffee and beer and chips. I’ve yet to see Grassington in the dry, but no matter. The rain does not spoil it. It’s going the tourist way in parts of course, but retains a certain gritty charm. And so long as people still live here, and the holiday cottages do not outnumber them, I see no reason yet for alarm.

on the dales way

On the Dales Way

I wash the mud off my boots in a puddle by the car, peel off the waterproof trousers, roll them up and put them in the slowly decaying carrier bag I’ve kept them in for years. My knee delivers a warning stab as I slip off the boots – reminder of an old injury, result of a bed and a flight of stairs and an overestimation of ability. That was years ago, the injury I presume a feature I take forward now.

And driving home I wonder how I’ll remember this walk in another thirty years. I wonder too about the importance of the accuracy of recall, when our mind so easily bends things over time to its own ends, and to a mere precis of past moments. It’s can’t be that important, since it did not stop me from carrying a fondness for this place, nor a desire one day to return.

I’d better not leave it another thirty years or I’ll be eighty seven.

Still, I might just manage it.

We’ll see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply too many boots on the ground these days.

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Mazda Glasson Feb 16Doris they called it, the storm I mean. We caught the scythe edge of it on Thursday as it advanced across the North, laid the grass flat and rippling in shivery silver waves. It pulled down trees and masonry too. It was looking a bit doubtful for my trip to Glasson Marina then, this last Friday of February. It would have made it four years in a row and on each occasion enjoying the harbingers of spring – soft sunshine, snowdrops and crocuses, and hares gambolling in the lush green meadows between Glasson and Cockerham.

Ah, well.

But come Friday Doris has moved her quietly watchful eye over the North, blessed us now with a brief, eerie calm, and several hours of clear blue. So, I wake the Mazda from her hibernation, and we head up the M6 to Lancaster, and Glasson.

The ticket machine at the marina is broken. It always is. There’s a number to ring so you can pay to park your car by phone but the number is broken too. It was broken last time, I recall. It’s only a pound all day , and I don’t begrudge it. I want to pay, but there is not the means of doing so. So, I tie on my boots, put on my winter layers and set off amid a gnawing anxiety about returning to find the Mazda slapped with a cunningly constructed penalty notice – this happens every time – the anxiety I mean, not the penalty notice.

I’m a little spooked by this weather. Four years in a row, this day has repeated itself, weather and all, this annual pilgrimage to the port of Glasson. It’s not a groundhog experience – more complicated than that. I live my life as normal all year, but on this one day, the last Friday of February, I step back into the same day, like an eternal recurrence.

cockeham-stoneOn this occasion, I am also on a mission. Last year, just along the coast here, I’d found a smooth-worn piece of standstone. Unremarkable you might say except this stone had once been part of the Abbey, long since demolished and recycled into the sea defences. It granted the stone a certain intangible, esoteric value and I’d made a promise with the abbey’s ghosts – I’ll take this home for luck, because its shape pleases me, I’ll keep it on my desk, turning it meditatively as I ponder my muse, then I’ll return it to the sea a year from now.

So here we are again. Same day, somehow slipped out of time – even a storm abated to make way, so I can keep my promise.

From the Marina we head out along the canal to the first bridge, pausing a while at the Christ’s Church, glowing in the the early morning sun, and we admire its displays of snowdrops and crocuses. Then from the bridge, we have a bit of quiet road walking, narrow lanes, south, before taking to the first of the boggy meadow paths, this one by Thursland hill fishery, and eventually out onto the causeway at Cockerham marsh.

It’s all wide blue sky and impossibly green meadows here, a pair of swans in one, stark white against the green, a pair of hares at play in another. There’s something neat and, compartmentalised about this, something symbolic, dreamlike even, and then,…our first impediment to progress, our first challenge: a gate, tied up with a tangle of wire and made so as not to be undone.

It makes me question my memory, my confidence, for sure the path leads through here? The map says yes, but there’s no way this gate is going to open, and all alternative routes lead astray. Something symbolic here also, I think. So I climb the gate and, not for the last time today, make good my course.

Gaining the causeway at Cockerham Marsh, I’m in time to see a Pilatus Turbo Porter, belonging to the Black Knights skydiving centre, hauling itself aloft with a penetrating buzz that vibrates in my skull. This is new to me. They have not flown on previous incarnations of this day.

Later, as I walk the causeway a couple of red chutes blossom in the blue. Men float to the ground, legs akimbo, wobbling. Their rate of descent looks faster than I’d be comfortable with. I’m reminded a man was killed here in 2012 when his chute didn’t open. It’s a sobering thought – a popular charity challenge, but leaping from a plane is no joke, and clearly not without its dangers, which I suppose is the attraction.

Anyway,…

It’s a gorgeous morning on the marsh – the tide is out, waders a plenty by the sparkling waterline – a mix of dunlin mostly, some curlew and the occasional splash of darting colour, and the shrill piping of oyster-catchers. These are the birds I can name, many I cannot. I kick against a curious piece of brass just along the way here, hear its metallic jingle underfoot. Curious, I pick it up.

What the Hell?

knuckledusterIt’s a knuckleduster, perfect fit too, but as I squeeze it into my fist, I feel a jarring of something unpleasant, imagine it smashing into someone’s jaw in a drunken brawl, blood, a spill of teeth, torn flesh. What foolishness and folly – the worst of mankind encapsulated in this one dumb object.

They are illegal to carry, and to sell in the UK, but not to own – one avoids prosecution I presume by not being caught with it in one’s possession. I don’t know what to do with it. If I drop it back onto the path, it’s there for the next passer by to chance upon it. And so what? I don’t know, but it doesn’t feel right, feel safe, so I slip it into my pocket for now, some possibly misguided sense of protection. I’ll have to think about it.

plover-scarAcross a vast, green, sea-scented sward I approach the Chapter House of the Abbey now, but what draws my eye is the Plover Scar Light, just off shore, or rather its absence from the receding tide. It was a rusty old thing, quaint, its architecture not quite of this world and having the look of something too long at sea without paint. And it’s mostly gone now, its stonework laid out methodically ashore, its foundations on the scar overlaid with an exoskeleton of scaffolding. A ship struck it some months ago, dealt it a mortal blow, but engineers are undertaking a painstaking restoration. It was always a beautiful subject for the camera – just Google Plover Scar Light for a sample. I shall have to wait for my next incarnation, next year, to get my picture.

slurryNear the old Lighthouse cottage I return
that smooth-worn piece of the abbey to the sea, keep my mysterious pact with the spirits of place. But it’s an ignominious ceremony overseen by a farmer shooting shit into the meadow across a fence, trundling slow with a giant tank of malodorous slurry. I’m upwind, so it doesn’t bother me, but I sit a while anyway, let him get on, not wanting to follow too close.

So,… the knuckleduster. It’s much pitted and spoiled by weather, but serviceable enough  and not beyond restoration – there are some  who have a morbid fascination for such things. I should take it home and saw it up perhaps? Take it out of circulation. But it feels like a contamination in my pocket, a really bad vibe, bad Karma rising from it like the stench of that slurry now. So how about I throw it into the sea? But might the sea not throw it back, come the next storm, for other hands to find?

gateIt’s about six miles round and back to Glasson. But at five miles I come upon my second impediment to progress ,and this one more serious. It’s a gate that lets on to a section of path that is now submerged by flooding. Someone has laid a precarious looking plank across the gap. The water beyond the gate, under that plank is waist deep and very, very cold. It gives me pause, but the alternative is several miles of backtracking.

I accept the challenge -something bloody minded in my attitude to risk this morning – I mean if people can leap from aeroplanes,… So, I stride out over several feet of water, onto the first bar of the semi-submerged gate, climb the gate, descend to balance on the plank on the other side. Then it’s a deep breath and a couple of steps to the dry land, the plank bending under my weight as I go, so the water comes within inches of overtopping my boots. But I make it over with dry feet.

As a marked track, the Lancashire coastal way is not without its spice!

Finally it’s back along the canal with it’s colourful barges, their chimneys now smoking cosily, and to Glasson Basin where the Mazda basks in the sun, awaiting its long run home. There’s no penalty notice stuck to the windscreen. Glasson keeps its pact with me, as I kept my pact with the ghosts of the abbey. And that knuckleduster? Let’s just say I lost it along the way, lost it somewhere safe where no one,  will ever find it again and from where the sea can never toss it back.

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thorpe-fell-top

The Weathered trig point on Thorpe Fell Top

The greatest pleasures in life are free. It’s not a particularly profound observation, but we sometimes forget. Life closes over us and we think we have to buy our way to pleasure, to satisfaction, or even just to make ourselves feel a little better. We all know this doesn’t work. What does work, is a simple walk, preferably up a hill. After a walk up a hill, no matter what life is nagging us with, we return relaxed, magnanimous, philosophical. It’s like a reset button, a thing that reliably blows away all the wormy gremlins.

Of late I’ve been seeking my hills in the Yorkshire Dales, an area unique in character and, to my mind, not as spoiled by rampant tourism, as the neighbouring Lake District. Unlike the Lakes, in the Dales we still find towns and villages that are home to a mostly indigenous population, where the trinket shops are few, and the holiday homes and b+b’s do not yet outnumber the genuine residences. Here, I find every visit yields yet another discovery, another unexpected hamlet with village green, duck-pond and homely teashop.

My most recent discovery, on this bright, frosty winter’s morning is Linton. Linton fits into the geography of Wharfedale, being just a stone’s throw from Burnsall, Hebden and Grassington. I’ve been driving up and down the Wharfe for years and not suspected Linton’s existence at all, and was drawn to it eventually simply as the starting point for this walk up Thorpe Fell. I had to check the map, and there it was.

I don’t know the stories of place here as well as I should, but this lends a touch of mystery to the land, and a void into which imagination tumbles with all the enthusiasm of the Romantic poet. I am prone to a certain mysticism in the empty places. There are many parts of the Dales, particularly what I still think of as the old West Riding, that have something of the big-house estate about them, something almost Feudal. This area is dominated by the vast Bolton Abbey Estate, and not well served with rights of way across its siren tops – we woolly hatted ones I imagine being discouraged, pre “Countryside and Rights of Way Act”, but we are now free to explore – just don’t expect many waymarked paths while you’re at it.

Thorpe Fell is one of the most stunning heather moors I’ve seen. This morning the heather is dusted with frost and presents us with rather an eerie, windswept yet curiously beguiling wilderness. I can imagine September here will be ablaze with purple, and promise myself I will return to see it.

From Linton, we make our way by meadow and country lane to Thorpe Village, from where a track begins the ascent of the moor, petering out by degrees until one is all but relying on a sixth sense. There is a feeling of isolation, of loneliness which makes all the more surprising the presence of rather a fine tea-hut on the moor’s windy edge. It isn’t marked on my edition of the Ordnance Survey map. The hut looks cosy, but is locked up tight and shuttered against intruders – I presume being solely for the use of the sons of gentlemen when they come up in their tweeds and knickerbockers to shoot grouse. But there is also rather a fine, open, grass roofed barn nearby, also not marked on the map, and in which I take brief shelter while enjoying lunch.

There is an indistinct summit to Thorpe Fell, complete with weathered trig-point, but it is not served by any path – the only path hereabouts veering off from the tea hut roughly north west, avoiding the summit which lies to the south west. The land, however, is open access, unless the gentlemen are shooting of course, and today they are not, so we are free to make a stab at its general direction. It’s a quarter mile or so of raw moor-bashing, the heather thick and springy with just the occasional weathered outcrop to provide a firmer going.

From the crumbling trig point (506 metres) the views are simply stunning. It’s also possible to see the next objective, the memorial on Cracoe Fell a little to the west of south west. It’s best to head due west from here though, rather than make a bee line, otherwise peat hags and the upper reaches of Yethersgill make for a laborious approach. Instead, due west, we pick up the line of a wall, and beside it a confident path leads us more easily to the memorial.

The memorial, a huge cairn, sitting atop a fine outcrop, adds height and drama to the fell – it bears a plaque marking the years 1914-1919, and the names of the fallen. This is the point at which we begin our descent, first to the village of Cracoe, then back through the meadows to Linton. But there is no direct route to Cracoe from the top, as I discovered in the attempting of it. I was thinking to head north west, a trackless bee-line towards an enticing bit of track that runs up from Cracoe to a weather station, but this leads quickly to bog, and for me rather a cold dip as one foot broke through the crust into something altogether less pleasant below. So, it’s better to back track a little from the memorial, back along the wall we have just come along, to where a gate gives access westwards. Either way we’re aiming for the Fell Lane track, which takes us to Cracoe, and the meadow paths home to Linton.

We’ve been walking for 5 hours now, the light beginning to leak away as we cross the various stiles and lush, frost dusted meadows. My feet always seem to know when I’m on the last mile, whether the walk is a couple of miles or ten, and they start to complain. But it’s a pleasant complaint, anticipating the eventual loosening of laces, and the body’s repose after a day in the field. Darkness is coming on, the temperature plummeting as we return to the car, and my boots begin to steam when I pull them off.

I’m always different after a walk. I’d left home that morning labouring under a cloud, my vehicle potentially stuffed at four years old with a major transmission problem . I’d been duped by the dealer I bought it from, was feeling fobbed off and badly served, facing now the prospect of a search for another vehicle and all the hazards that entails (dodgy dealers included – even the big glossy ones), or a very expensive repair. Ah,… cars eh?

Either way were looking at a serious hit in the wallet at a time of year when one can ill afford it. To be sure, it had felt like the end of the world as I’d dragged my bones from bed that morning, and mustered my walking gear, so much so I nearly didn’t bother setting off. But as I poured out my coffee in the Cracoe Cafe that evening, I could not have cared less.

It was a fine sunset, a clear azure sky, another keen, frosty evening coming on. The moon was up, Venus in attendance, with a distinctly coquettish gleam in her eye.

What more could a man want?

Well, let me see,… ah yes!

I ordered a toasted teacake.

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

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

Yes, binoculars!

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

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

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

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

“Is that what you do then? Birds?”

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

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

“Seen any interesting birds mate?” asked one.

His associates tittered approvingly.

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

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

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

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

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greenbelt

My walk home from school was more pleasant than my walk to it. The meadows were darker on the way there, more restless and brooding, but brighter, greener, fresher on the way back. Thus the land reflects emotion, amplifies it, responds to imagination. To know the land for long enough is to have it become a part of who we are, mirror to our mood. To know buildings is not the same. It is only in the land the spirit of place can dwell, and when the land is gone, covered over with the built environment, the spirit dies.

There was a little brook by the roadside where we used to stop on the way home from school. I remember it as a dappled oasis, a stream full of little stars and reward aplenty for the indignities suffered during the school day. I remember too the faces of my pals, hear the echo of their voices, feel the mood of joyous play.

The brook has gone now. It was a nuisance to grown-ups, and is diverted through a culvert, buried beneath the entrance to a housing estate, as indeed every meadow along that mile long route to school is similarly built upon, the spirit of place expunged by “development”.

In similar vein my childhood bedroom looked out over the green of the Yarrow Valley, a place of quiet contemplation and leafy walks, to which I am still regularly drawn. To lose oneself in the quiet of a moving meditation is to envision the land with a magic others cannot see or feel. The romanticism of past ages touched me there, rendered me sensitive to dimensions beyond sight and ordinary knowing, and it’s to that place I owe my writing. But like my little stream of stars, there are rumours it too will soon be gone. Others say the rumours are false, but I’m unsettled by them all the same, grown cynical and lacking trust in my old age. Housing has encroached so much in past decades, it seems a natural progression for them to take what little remains here. 

I remember coming up from the river once, crossing a particularly lovely stretch of meadow. I was brooding on a girl I knew – or rather a girl I wanted very much to know. It was a glowering dusk, and against the skyline there was a huge, wind-blasted tree, sculpted by centuries of leaning against the prevailing wind, and there was the gentle curve of a hill, very feminine in outline, and a hint of thunder in a hot wind that rendered the leaves restless – all of this a perfect mirror for my mood. The meadow too was dewy, my footsteps forming a lone trail, lightly drawn as if upon a silvery veil, reflecting the fragility of the moment. It was such a long time ago, but whenever I return I am reminded of that night, the way my imagination connected, and how the land spoke.

Today that same perfect curve of skyline is broken by the jackknifed outline of houses, and there are these possibly pernicious rumours that speak of ripping up the meadow, as the houses move yet further south into this still glorious belt of green. I have watched the inexorable march year on year with a mixture of profound regret and puzzlement. Can it really be that, like my childhood stream of stars, it will be gone? And why do so few of us value it so much, when others value it so little they can blithely trade it on the market and dig it up.

Developers talk of greenbelt as if its preservation is an encumbrance, a distraction from the target to build and monetise an otherwise unproductive resource. But uninterrupted green is important too, its value intangible of course, at least in terms of pounds and pence, and if all we have left is a quarter mile belt around our towns, sufficient only as a place we take our dogs to defecate, we have already lost too much.

Of course there can be no permanence in the material world. All things must change; we all grow old and die, and sometimes the storms will come and fell the mighty oak, known and loved by generations. Likewise our footsteps, traced across the dewy meadow, will be gone by morning, lost to a new dawn. But let them be dissolved by sunlight, taken back into the eternal memory that is the spirit of the land, not obliterated by the ignominy of several thousand tons of brick and concrete.

 

 

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suliven2

Suliven, Sutherland, UK

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

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

The truck didn’t stop.

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

I do not lament our estrangement.

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

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

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

To tea and crumpets.

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

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

So I’ve been working on it.

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

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

Or maybe these days I just have better protection.

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